Compassionate Science 11/24/21

History of Richard Bleil

Here’s a bit of trivia about me that seems to surprise people.  My regular readers know that I’m a theoretical chemist.  I studies statistical thermodynamics in graduate school because, of all the sub-disciplines of chemistry, thermodynamics was my weakest.  Rather than going with my strength, I wanted to build up that weakness, and frankly, I’m glad I did.  It turned out to be the correct choice, but before going to graduate school, I worked in industry as an analytical chemist.

Analytical chemistry is, in my opinion, the humblest branch of chemistry.  It’s the service branch, asking two questions, “what is it” (qualitative analysis) and “how much is there (quantitative analysis).  For example, if there is a cancer cluster in an area, it’s the analytical chemists who will sample the soil, the water, the air to try to figure out what could be causing it (qualitative analysis).  If a toxin is found in the water, then the next step is to figure out how much there is and, once cleaned up, continue monitoring it to be sure it’s at a safe level (quantitative analysis).

One day, working at the lab (along with two other chemists and additional staff), the office assistants out front asked me to field a telephone call.  The supervisor (one of those self-important and less than bright people) was on another call and they wanted this caller to get help.  The caller was having problems with her paint.

When she painted her house, brown spots would develop.  They always started on the south side of the house, but eventually work their way around to the front.  What’s more, if she had her windows open, the brown spots would begin on the corresponding south side of the indoor walls.  She had deduced that there must be something in the air, then, that is causing this phenomenon.

She told me she wasn’t worried about the paint.  It was always under warranty, so she just would get the house repainted, and she wasn’t even worried about her own health, but she had three children.  If there was something in the air, then her children were probably breathing it, and she worried for their health.  She had called the EPA, who simply told her they cannot help and hung up on her. 

She lived on the end of a cul-de-sac, and behind her house to the south, off to one side, was an active farm.  On the other side was a small regional airport.  Listening to her tale, I realized that farms often use harsh chemicals, including ammonia (or ammonia releasing chemicals) as fertilizer, and there are chemicals in use, such as special fuels, at airports.  Either could have been the culprit.

I thought about my boss.  I really didn’t want to give the call to her because (you can decide if I made the right decision here or not) I didn’t want it to turn into a business call.  Knowing the kind of testing that we did, and the kind of equipment we were using, it wasn’t the right equipment for her problem.  There are special pieces of equipment, for example, that can draw samples of air and trap any unusual chemicals for later analysis that we did not have, but I didn’t trust my boss’ morals.  This woman was scared, and for the right reason.  She needed help, not a sales pitch, and she certainly didn’t need to be spending a lot of money for a shoddy analysis that would likely produce no useful results.  Even if we discovered the root cause, we would not have been able to help her mitigate it.

I spent over an hour with this mom, asking questions and taking notes.  Together we came up with a few hypotheses, and in my mind, I was thinking about what kind of analyses I could personally do to help narrow down the possibilities.

In the end, I spent some time giving her advice and training.  I suggested she call back the EPA and told her precisely who to ask for before even discussing the problem.  The issue with government employees is that they are often too eager to simply say “not me” rather than trying to find the correct person since that would take actual time.  I had her ask to how she can reach an environmental chemistry lab, and once there to ask to speak with an actual laboratory manager before talking about the problem.  Once there, I suggested that she spoke with a chemist and that he (meaning me) agreed that the problem could be these chemical sources, and that they might be contaminating the air in the neighborhood.  Finally, I told her that if she couldn’t get the EPA to respond in an appropriately satisfactory manner, that she should call me back, personally, and I would come out to do what I could without charging her.

I never heard back from her.  To this day I worry about her and her family, despite the fact that this was well over thirty years ago.  I truly hope that she found the help that she needed, and that she and her family are doing well, but I will never know for sure.

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