Article Archive
Focus on Hazmat
Policy, politics and progress
Vol. 26 Fall 2010

Regulations are a fact of life in the industrial world. They come from governmental agencies on the national level and from local government in our communities. They also come from industry itself. Regulations are not of necessity a bad thing. In fact when they set standards they are essential. For example: the thread pitch (threads per inch) standard National Coarse (NC) thread for a quarter inch bolt is twenty. Now this is not to say that there is anything sacred or superior about twenty threads per inch; a nineteen or twenty-one would serve as well but it does assure that we all sing from the same hymnal. Thus it is that I can go down to the local hardware store and purchase a nut for my quarter-inch bolt with every reasonable assurance that it will fit. It also makes possible the creation of specialized threads for specific applications. For example the left-hand thread found on the valves of cylinders intended to contain fuel gases (Acetylene, LPG etc) effectively prevents the accidental connection of these cylinders to equipment requiring Oxygen. Cylinders containing anesthetic gasses (Nitrous Oxide, Cyclopropane etc.) have still another type of connection to insure against errors in identification.


These standards make sense; anyone who doubts this should look at the history of fire apparatus and the problems engendered by each municipality and industrial department having its own proprietary thread.


The thinking behind this was not entirely faulty, it was thought that individualized threads would eliminate, or at least reduce, pilferage, and prevent the abducting of fire fighting equipment for other purposes with the result that it would be “out of pocket” and unavailable for immediate use in case of need. This it did, to a great extent; however as we soon found out, the Law of Unintended Consequences has not been repealed and in this instance the unintended consequences were of massive proportions. In the early years of the last century no one had any idea of the tremendous growth which America was about to undergo. The ideas of mutual aid and interconnectability were unheard of and we are still dealing with the consequences of a well intentioned idea that went very much awry.

Regulations can, and are, promulgated for a number of reasons. Of course the first would be to ensure the safety of the workforce as well as the community as a whole. The second reason would be for purposes of standardization such as the Unified Thread Standard or the standards regarding tank truck trailers. These tend to arise from a perceived need within the industrial - commercial community though they may be actually instituted by governmental agencies such as DOT, EPA, FAA or AAR though the last named is technically not a governmental agency.

The third group of regulations are those initiated by legislative bodies, local, state or national. These tend to be the most intrusive and in far too many cases the least productive.

Regulations are, by their very nature, intrusive but, theoretically, the inconvenience engendered by the intrusion is offset by the benefits of standardization, the enhancement of the public safety or the enhancement of commerce. Whether this is actually the case is problematical.

Some of us can recall the proposal a number of years ago which sought to set up what were called “CAFE” Standards. This is an acronym for Corporate Fuel Economy standards which were authorized as Title V of the “Energy Policy Conservation Act,” enacted into law by Congress in 1975, after the Arab oil embargo was ended.

Any auto maker whose fleet fails to meet the CAFE standard is subject to a penalty. The penalty for failing to meet CAFE standards recently increased from $5 to $5.50 per tenth of a mile per gallon for each tenth under the target value times the total volume of those vehicles manufactured for a given model year. 

Now there is a finite limit to the distance any vehicle can travel on one gallon of fuel; Newton’s three laws and the laws thermodynamics take care of that. Thus the law was written in terms of what was “technically feasible”. Perhaps better wording would have been “technically practical” or “technically possible”. At any rate, since 1983, manufacturers have paid more than $500 million in civil penalties. Most European manufacturers regularly pay CAFE civil penalties ranging from less than $1 million to more than $20 million annually. Asian and domestic manufacturers have never paid a civil penalty even though some of them, at least, should have.

In the late 60’s and early 70’s, prior to the passage of the Energy Policy Conservation Act there was a highly publicized movement to improve highway safety by strengthening the vehicles themselves. There was talk of going back to the separate frame design for all vehicles and “five mile per hour” bumpers. These things were supposed to save “thousands” of lives and greatly reduce collision damage. What happened to them? Well, the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo for one thing. This event which was, in fact, the main impetus for the EPA is now history but the CAFÉ standard turned out to be such a great source of revenue that it has remained on the books to the present day, long after the real need for such stringent economy measures has passed. The practicality of the EPA is, at best, questionable; the Arab oil embargo ended in 1974 before the act was passed and it only applied to new and non-loaded vehicles so, the amount of fuel actually saved was very likely close to insignificant.

The safety standards were sacrificed to reduce the vehicle weight because since F=MA (Force equals Mass times acceleration) the only way to reduce the force required to move a vehicle is to reduce the mass.

When these ideas were proposed either the claims concerning the number of deaths and/or serious injuries that would be prevented was faulty or the safety of the motoring public was deemed to be of less importance than fuel economy. Take your pick. Either way our lawmakers, by chance or design, created a “cash cow” and we are not likely so see the end of it regardless of any real good it may or may not do.

Then there is the case of the tungsten filament (incandescent) light bulb. During the late 50’s and early 60’s word came down from that great think-tank on the Potomac that mercury was bad and we must henceforth and forthwith remove any and all traces of this heinous substance from the hospitals wherein I was employed at the time. Being good law-abiding citizens we set out to comply. We got rid of the mercury-in-glass thermometers, the sphygmomanometers, the Van Slyke apparatus, the Nattleson gasometers, the Rufus tubes and anything else with mercury.

Some institutions even went to the extreme of changing out the mercury containing light switches in certain areas. Mercury was “bad stuff” indeed. There is even now a movement to stop using coal for the production of electric power since coal burning plants emit mercury to the outside atmosphere.

Pregnant women are cautioned against eating tuna since mercury is concentrated in these top flight members of the food chain (late word is that this has now been modified because the benefits of the omega 3’s in the tuna are thought to be more beneficial than the mercury is dangerous however the ladies are warned to eat only small amounts of tuna). Oh yes indeed, mercury is bad.

Now comes that little device that screws in a light socket and looks like a white coiled spring; enter the Compact fluorescent lamp or CFL. These lamps are, in reality, a small diameter fluorescent tube shaped into a coil and attached to a standard Edison screw base. It is intended that these items will be installed to replace the venerable incandescent lamp. Suddenly the concerns over mercury are diminished. DFI’s are part of the “Energy Star” program and there is a big sales campaign out there to sell them to us.

Now it is true that the CFL bulbs do indeed save on energy; up to 75% and the higher initial cost will amortize over the life of the bulb.  This all sounds good until one realizes that the bulbs contain that bad, bad boy Mercury. If we are to believe the folks at EPA (the agency, not the act) the amount of mercury contained in a single CFL  is enough to render the air in an average sized room unsafe in the event that the device is accidently broken.

CFLs, like all fluorescent lamps, contain mercury as vapor inside the glass tubing. Most CFLs contain 3–5 mg per bulb, with the eco-friendly bulbs containing as little as 1 mg. Because mercury is poisonous, even these small amounts are a concern for landfills and other waste disposal facilities and more importantly to home owners. Now it must be said in all truthfulness that the toxicity of mercury depends greatly on the state in which the element is found. Metallic mercury (quicksilver) is relatively non toxic when ingested. It is so heavy that it promptly goes to the stomach and is coated with mucus and then takes the next train out of there. In fact the now outdated Rufus tube used to collect gastric samples was weighted by a small balloon containing a small amount of mercury. Mercury in the vapor state, such as that released into the atmosphere when any fluorescent lamp is broken, is another matter entirely. In this state mercury can be inhaled and absorbed through the lung tissue. Combined mercury is also toxic thus we have mercuric chloride (Mercury(II)) chloride (HgCl2 ), formerly known as corrosive sublimate. This white crystalline solid is a laboratory reagent and a molecular compound. It is no longer used for medicinal purposes (e.g. treatment of syphilis) because it is highly toxic and superior treatments have become available. Mercuric chloride is an acute as well as a cumulative poison.

Mercury (I) chloride or mercurous chloride (Hg2Cl2) is also known as calomel. It was used as a purgative in medicine until well into the twentieth century and it is far less toxic than mercuric chloride though it too can be a cumulative poison.

Then there is methylmercury an organometallic cation with the formula [CH3Hg]+. It is a bioaccumulative environmental toxicant and tends to concentrate as one moves up the food chain. For this reason pregnant women are often advised to control their intake of tuna and other large fish-eating fish. While there is no need for panic or a state of emergency the mercury content of seafood does bear watching.

The amount of mercury released by one bulb can temporarily exceed federal guidelines for chronic exposure. Chronic however, implies that the exposure continues constantly over a long period of time and the Maine DEP study noted that it remains unclear what the health risks are from short-term exposure to low levels of elemental mercury. The Maine DEP study also confirmed that, despite following EPA best-practice cleanup guidelines on broken CFLs, researchers were unable to remove mercury from carpet, and agitation of the carpet — such as by young children playing — created localized concentrations as high as 25,000 ng/m3 in air close to the carpet, even weeks after the initial breakage.

Conventional fluorescent lamps have been in common use since the 1930’s but there has been little concern for the safety of these devices however the level of concern in the international community appears to be rising. The increased concern among home owners is due in large part to the fact that relatively few long tube fluorescents are used in domestic applications and those that are so used are commonly contained in attached fixtures. This is also true in the commercial realm. These fixtures are normally out of the reach of children or pets and the fixtures are anchored strongly enough to prevent accidental upsets that would result in breakage of CFLs.

The EPA has recognized the dangers inherent in the use of CFLs and has promulgated a set of guidelines for cleaning up after a CFL has been broken1.  Unfortunately these guidelines are often impractical if not impossible to follow in a home environment and, if there is some delay in the discovery of the breakage they may be too late to be effective.

Now having said all of the foregoing about the dangers and concerns surrounding compact fluorescent lamps our government regulators have not only endorsed and encouraged their use but it would now appear that they intend to force us to use them.

Our congress in its omnipotent wisdom wants to ban the manufacture of the 100 watt incandescent lamp bulb immediately with the phase out of other sizes to come. This is in the face of EPA’s recommendation that incandescent lamps continue to be used in certain locations and fixtures where the possibility of breakage is high. The problem here is that consumers (domestic and commercial alike) will not have a choice. This is a first in our history. In most cases the consumer is smart enough to understand and weigh the risks associated with any new product but not this time. “The CFL is more efficient and that is what you will use, period” (sayeth the bureaucrats). Now the Model T is not an efficient vehicle; not only that, it is downright uncomfortable but if you want one, and can find one that will run, you can still drive it. Not so with the CFL. Is this really what we want from our regulators? Many of our citizens are concerned about the toxic properties of mercury. Are we now to take away their right to do what they think best to protect themselves and their children in the name of efficiency?

The feds are not the only source of “questionable” regulations. State and local authority chime in too. A case in point:

In our part of the desert southwest water is scarce and we use and re-use every drop we can. Now some politician somewhere (probably from some Louisiana swamp) has decided that the runoff from roofs is bad so all new buildings must have a certain amount of pond capacity to prevent runoff water from getting into the river where it could be used down stream. This rule applies even to small remote structures sheltering electronic equipment and such.  Of course the public streets are exempt from this masterpiece of bureaucratic fantasy and that runoff goes in the storm drains as it always has.

Now the law of unintended consequences is still on the books in our area. We are one of the focal points for the West Nile virus which infects horses and humans alike. This disease, along with several others, is carried by mosquitoes which require standing water to multiply in their five-day development cycle. In doing the research for this article I found accounts going back 100 years of health officials treating bodies of standing water to prevent the reproduction of mosquitoes. Current newspapers have editorialized on the menace and the health department has published at least one column in each paper warning our citizens about the need to eliminate even small pools of standing water. The City’s Codes Enforcement Dept. will cite a home or business owner who allows water to collect on his property. With all this in place, we now come up with a requirement that any new construction have a pond constructed to catch runoff water and hold it until it evaporates or percolates into the soil. There is one such pond near my home which fills up with every shower. As soon as it does, the City’s Vector Control department is out sampling the water for “wigglers."

Sure enough, along about day four here comes the pump truck to empty the pond; and where does the water go? Into the storm drain system and thence to the river where it would have gone anyway if the politicians had not interfered. Does any one see a disconnect here?  Of course those ponds located in a remote facility probably don’t get monitored and so function as breeding tanks for mosquitoes.

These are just examples of regulations which may have been well intentioned but have produced unintentioned consequences that have done more harm than good. Their existence begs the question: does anyone ever actually sit down and look at these regulations as whole entities to see what the real and perhaps, unintended consequences are going to be?

Regulations should be written for the purpose of ensuring safety, standardization, or preventing unfair or unethical business practices. They should not be written as sources of revenue though far too have been turned into “cash cows.”

In our culture we have become obsessed with rules and regulations. They have become sacrosanct as if written on tablets of stone. Rather than being a means to a laudable end they have, all too often, become an end in themselves.

Recently I was involved in a discussion with a colleague about assembling assets for an event of catastrophic proportions. During our talk I mentioned that we included hearses in our plan to transport mass casualties. My colleague went ballistic. He insisted that this simply couldn’t be possible. “It is against the rules.” You would think I had come out against apple pie and motherhood. I never could get a definitive answer to the question of whose rules or by what authority they were written but there were, apparently, rules none the less.

Later this summer we heard accounts from Joplin of rescuers using doors taken from wrecked buildings as stretchers and using them to transport injured persons to medical treatment sites in pickup trucks. That apparently is permissible but an enclosed hearse is not? I wonder. In an emergency situation you use whatever you have and sort out the paperwork and do the finger pointing later. The first priority is the preservation of life and the safety of the populace. An injured person rescued from a destroyed dwelling will, I’m sure, be more than grateful for any assistance and transport to medical attention afforded them and I doubt they will think twice, or even care, about the color of the vehicle employed. Does anyone really think that those in charge at a major incident would actually be censured for using an “off spec” vehicle? Hopefully we have not become enslaved to the rule book to that extent. It was not too many years ago that  many “ambulances” were simply hearses with a bed in the back and a red light on the front. Now they are “off spec” and prohibited?    

It has been said that as regulation increases so does poverty. If we, as a country, are going to compete successfully in the world market we are going to have to cut our costs of production and one way to do this is to reduce (hopefully eliminate) the mountain of redundant and superfluous regulations with which we presently have to contend.This is not something that government will do for us, rest assured. Industry can no longer sit idly by as successive legislatures bury us deeper in more and more regulations with out regard for the unintended consequences. We continue to expend increasing amounts of time and treasure in efforts at compliance which sometimes is a technical impossibility anyway. Then we wonder why jobs are constantly being outsourced off shore. If it is to return to profitability the industrial community must become proactive in the regulatory process. We need to examine any regulatory legislation, public or private, embracing that which is good and serves a meaningful purpose while opposing and rejecting the bad. If this means camping out in Washington or Austin, Oklahoma City, Baton Rouge or Santa Fe then so be it. Industry must be heard or it will perish, drowned in the very regulations that were promulgated to promote its welfare.


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