EarthTalk: I’m concerned about all the
talk of using hydrogen for fuel. Isn’t hydrogen what
caused the Hindenburg blimp to explode back in the 1930s?
-- Doug, via e-mail
explosion of the Hindenburg blimp in Lakehurst, New Jersey
in 1937 killed 36 people and was one of the worst air disasters
of the period, but hydrogen was probably not the culprit.
Addison Bain, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA) researcher, investigated the Hindenburg crash in 1997.
He concluded that, while the Hindenburg did use hydrogen for
buoyancy, the cause of the accident was an electrostatic charge
that ignited the blimp’s highly flammable waterproof
skin, made from a mixture of lacquer and metal-based paints
that Bain likened to rocket fuel.
argue that a spark ignited hydrogen that was leaking from
the ship. But witnesses described the fire as very colorful,
whereas hydrogen burns without much of a visible flame. But
whether or not hydrogen caused or simply contributed to the
ensuing blaze, hydrogen is indeed flammable, and can burst
into flames when it comes into contact with fire or another
gasoline, by far the most common automotive fuel in the world,
is much more flammable than hydrogen. According to hydrogen
proponent Daniel Emmett of Energy Independence Now, hydrogen
is 14 times lighter than air and when it catches fire it disperses
and extinguishes quickly. Gasoline, on the other hand, is
heavier than air and stays flammable much longer. Many people
don’t realize, Emmet adds, that hydrogen has been used
safely for decades in many industrial and aerospace applications.
being less flammable than gasoline, hydrogen has many other
benefits. It is nontoxic, which is more than can be said for
any petroleum-based fuel. Furthermore, the processing (not
combustion) of hydrogen in fuel cells produces no harmful
pollutants and emits only pure, potable water as well as heat
that can be recaptured for other uses. In contrast, the combustion
of gasoline and other automotive fuels leads to acid rain,
smog and global warming, among other environmental problems.
its benefits, the widespread adoption of hydrogen as an automotive
fuel is not yet close at hand. Techniques for producing, storing
and transporting hydrogen have to be standardized, and costs
reduced substantially. Some hydrogen proponents see a future
where hydrogen will fuel vehicles at service stations, as
is now done with gasoline; others see a future in which people
fuel their cars at home from appliances that make hydrogen
from electricity or, further down the road, from solar energy.
2003 the Bush administration committed $1.2 billion to a hydrogen
initiative in order to “reverse America's growing dependence
on foreign oil by accelerating the commercialization of hydrogen-powered
fuel cells to power cars, trucks, homes and businesses with
no pollution or greenhouse gases.” Under the initiative,
says the White House’s “Hydrogen Economy Fact
Sheet,” “the first car driven by a child born
today could be powered by fuel cells.”
“Hydrogen Exonerated in Hindenburg Disaster,”
Hydrogen Association News; Energy
Independence Now; White House “Hydrogen Economy
I’m a hair stylist and am wondering about the health
and environmental impacts of the styling products I use every
day on my customers.
-- Misty Rohrbaugh, Asheville, NC
Millions of people
around the world use shampoos, conditioners and dyes on their
hair regularly without any discernable harm. But recent studies
have linked some of the ingredients in these products to various
human health problems, so hair care professionals and consumers
are well advised to know their options.
and conditioners, the most commonly used hair care products,
contain a synthetic detergent called Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
(SLS), which generates a sudsy lather. But SLS can dry the
scalp, stripping the skin’s surface of its protective
lipids. It can also cause follicle damage, hair loss, skin
and eye irritation, and allergic reactions such as rashes
chemicals in most mainstream shampoos and conditioners are
parabens--sometimes listed as methylparaben, propylparaben,
ethylparaben or butylparaben--which are added as preservatives
to ward off mold and mildew. Morris Shriftman, Senior Vice
President with Avalon Organics, says that these chemicals
are dangerous because they accumulate in the bloodstream where
they can “mimic” naturally-occurring hormones
like estrogen, and disrupt human endocrine function accordingly.
Parabens are also of particular concern to oncologists, who
report finding the chemicals in breast cancer cells.
Luckily, a number
of manufacturers make available shampoos and conditioners
free of SLS and parabens, making it easier for stylists and
customers alike to do the right thing. Aveda, Avalon Organics,
Aubrey Organics, Dessert Essence Organics, Jason Natural Products
and Simply Organic, among many others, use organic herbal
extracts to do the jobs normally associated with synthetic
chemicals. These products are readily available at natural
foods markets and increasingly in mainstream supermarkets.
to prove links between hair dyes and cancer or birth defects
have turned up mostly inconclusive results, although the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) National
Center for Toxicological Research found that the majority
of off-the-shelf hair dyes for black, red and blonde hair
contain a known carcinogen, 4-ABP. Also, according to the
FDA, some consumers have reported burning, redness, itching
and swelling of the face from hair dyes, as well as hair loss
and difficulty breathing. The FDA does not regulate hair products,
but John Bailey, director of the agency’s color and
cosmetics program, cautions consumers to “consider the
lack of demonstrated safety” when considering a hair
Most natural health
care experts agree that going without hair dye altogether
is the safest route. Hair color professionals should wear
heavy plastic gloves and a mask to protect against fumes,
and should schedule their color work with lots of breaks between
applications to limit exposure. Consumers, when possible,
should shop around for less toxic, all-natural coloring agents.
Many of the companies listed above also make all-natural hair
colorings; other popular brands include EcoColors, Naturtint,
and Clairol’s Castings line. Hennas, which are available
in most salons, are also a good safe, non-permanent option.
Office of Cosmetics and Colors
SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM