5. Is This Safe?

The Safety of this Material

The safety of using this material as a clay body is in no way related to the safety of hydrofracking. This needs to be said since there are blogs, aiming to convince people of fracking's safety, which are starting to mention this project. They use very sloppy logic.

Hydrofracking  is a process whose safety has been in question. Unlike in ceramics, there is no consensus in regard to its hazards and how to address them.  

In Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett has an advisory council called "The Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission". Clearly, the Governor doesn't need advice on a sedimentary rock. The language is crafted to point away from people and toward nature. It's important to refer to processes, regulations and corporate decisions - not  a rock. 

Through this work, I've been in conversation with scientists, researchers and other specialists who have been working in this area. What I've come to believe, and what many people who have real expertise in the field believe: though hydrofracking COULD POSSIBLY be done safely, at the current moment, that is not the case (some may more carefully say 'this may not currently be the case'.)

The money for research in this area comes primarily from companies with an interest in fossil fuels and the fracking process. Important baseline data has not been collected, and there is plenty research that needs to be done once that information is in place. Since research costs time and money and may lead to guidelines that could change the process and make it more expensive, companies will not fund many important studies. The government is just beginning to fill the gap.

One of the arguments for natural gas drilling is that renewable energy sources are not ready, and would be more expensive to implement. But is the hydrofracking process truly ready? It's being done under conditions of calculated risk, with consequences that are unacceptable. Imagine if nuclear energy was derived from hydrofracking - would the current conditions be tolerated?

If renewables received the same level of governmental support, it would not take 20 years in order to be feasible here. If gas prospecting had to address the safety issues of its processes, it would not be such an inexpensive resource. It is, I believe, no coincidence that the 20 year prediction coincides with the amount of time our natural gas resources will hold out for. Other countries are already implementing solar and wind on a large scale. It is difficult to find any reason, other than a lack of political will, that we are not leading the field.  

Can we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels with so much of it in reserve under our feet? This, it seems, represents a tremendous challenge.

The Rock

I'm working with a safe material. If there were no drilling, the Marcellus shale would do what it has done for tens of thousands of years. It would sit several thousand feet underground, and with no threat of contaminating wells and aquifers below ground, and would cause no disturbance whatsoever above ground.

Marcellus Shale harvested from an outcropping is not a dangerous rock (unlike uranium for example). It has a degree of potassium in it, elevating its level of radiation slightly. Throughout the world, there are buildings constructed of stones with a higher level of radiation (for example, in Philadelphia, the ubiquitous Wissahickon Schist). If you use a cell phone, you've accepted a similar level of risk.

The main hazard with this material is one familiar to anyone who works with clay: inhaling the dust over the long term can lead to silicosis.  Working with Stephen, one of the geologists at Temple, we ran tests on a sample of the rock, the soil, and the clay. Here's the report, which spells out all of the elements found in the material. The highlights in yellow are elements that I was advised to look at closer:
Rock, Soil and Clay lab tests

The Excel sheet shows results for 30 chemical elements:
Molybdenum, zirconium, sulfur, uranium, strontium, rubidium, thorium, lead, selenium, arsenic, mercury, tungsten, zinc, nickel, copper, cobalt, iron, manganese, chromium, vanadium, titanium, silicon, carbon, potassium, sulfur, barium, cesium, terbium, antimony, tin, silver, cadmium and palladium.

A scary list, indeed. But the numbers associated with each seemed to fall within safe levels. There was a high level of potassium, which accounted for the slightly higher radioactivity in the stone. Who knew that potassium was radioactive? Yes, even bananas are radioactive. It's amount and the level of exposure that is critical.

Here are the Temple lab tests of the final ceramic cups:
Ceramic Tests

I decided to have a FDA certified lab re-analyze the clay and final ceramic - mostly to be able to officially confirm food safety.

I found a local lab, and learned that the only thing the government requires for food-safety were tests for lead and cadmium. This seemed woefully inadequate, knowing how many elements might find their way into a clay or glaze. Ordinarily in this testing, they're primarily concerned with glazes, not clay bodies. I sent in samples and requested a full battery of tests, focusing on the concerns raised by the Temple samples. The lab report sent back showed the material was well within safe limits. With the additional testing beyond jsut lead and cadmium, I can comfortably say: these cups are likely to be safest you'll ever drink from.  

Learning from "The Big Shale Teach In"

On Friday, November 4, 2011, the art and engineering schools at Temple University got together to sponsor this event: (to download presentations as noted, please follow the link below to go to the NRDP site)