Wednesday, April 15, 2009

PAHs -- Not Found at Your Local Health Food Store

Yesterday, my family and I returned from a five day visit with my parents in southwestern Missouri. This, of course, means I’ll be spending most of today actually recovering from the “vacation”. You have to love how that works. The travel part of the trip went smoothly, thankfully. No one got sick, the plane was on time, and there were no traffic problems; so we arrived in Springfield at the appointed time – only two hours before the tornadoes passed through. Ah, the joys of traveling!

Several of the houses in our neighborhood (not mine) have asphalt driveways. They’re a popular option since they cost less to build than concrete driveways, but they require a yearly application of sealant for protection from the elements. Apparently, that sealant contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs (sometimes referred to as polynuclear aromatics or PNAs) consist of three or more fused aromatic rings (anthracene is one example), and as you might guess, are not always the most healthy of chemicals. And according to a recent study, the PAHs from these sealants are making their way into the water system. Since many PAHs are carcinogenic, you can kind of understand the concern.

As an inorganic chemist, I never really had much contact with PAHs, but I did run into them a few years ago while working on reforming catalysts. These catalysts convert air and hydrocarbons (like gasoline or diesel fuel) into CO and H2, along with smaller amounts of methane. I began to notice the buildup of an orange/yellow/brown solid all throughout my vent lines, sometimes as far as 10 feet away from the reactor. This necessitated not only the periodic replacement of these lines, but also, to my great joy, a massive clean out of my mass spectrometer. An NMR revealed this solid to be a mixture of PAHs. A little research revealed that under hot (700C), reducing conditions, methane forms PAHs quite happily. A little more research revealed that PAHs have been found responsible for the higher than usual rates of testicular cancer among workers in the metal cutting industry. Cutting fluids contain PAHs, and wearing clothes which are constantly soaked with them was found to be a bad idea.

I elected to start wearing gloves. Anybody else have any interesting stories about carcinogenic materials with which they’ve worked?

On the lighter side, David Bradley has managed to convince a few people to reveal some of the more stupid things they have done in the lab. .

I’ve decided to add a verification check in the comments section. I apologize for the inconvenience, but this blog seems to have been targeted by a bot which feels the need to leave garbage in the comments section and I’m getting tired of deleting it. Hopefully I’ll be able to drop it again in a couple of weeks.

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