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August 23, 2006

TSA Gumbo Surprise
Posted by John M. Ford at 02:07 AM * 68 comments

Okay, kids, here’s the Final Extreme Amateur Chemistry Exam Question:

If you are disposing of random liquids specifically because some of them might be Very Bad Chemicals, you should:

A. Observe the disposal rules … like, on the nutrition label or somewhere.
B. Wrap them in Macy’s paper and leave them on the street.
C. Call FEMA and webcast the explosion.
D. Dump them in a big common bucket and breathe deep.

Up where I live, the answer is a resounding “D.”

I’m just glad that Elise flew out to Anaheim the night before.

Though I will give them credit for saying clearly that it appeared to be entirely accidental, which is the Minnesota-Nice way of saying, “Try to make a tsimmis out of this, Chertoff, and you’ll have to grin to see daylight.”

Comments on TSA Gumbo Surprise:
#1 ::: Daniel ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 03:53 AM:

I find it peculiar that it was the airport alarm and not, like, the breathing difficulties that sent the airport workers to the hospitals.

Also, for more fun with pepper spray: Cons escape with different sort of pepper spray.

Airheads, anyone?

#2 ::: Wim L ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 04:05 AM:

I'm just surprised it took this long for something noxious to come bubbling out of those vats. I guess airports often have pretty high ceilings, so maybe their ventilation is good.

#3 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 05:19 AM:

Well, I used to work in synthetic organic chemistry, and after that spent more than a decade in university departments with synth labs, and "D" was in fact the right answer - individual benches would have waste bottles at each end, but these would be emptied into larger vessels, which would in turn go into a vat....

Accidentally producing Bad Stuff was fairly unlikely because the individual compounds that would react together were more likely to have reacted with something else in the mix first.

Of course, if Passenger A turns up with a gallon jug of one compound and a few minutes later Passenger B turns up with a similar jug of another, and they get poured into a virtually empty vat, then you just might be able to get a reaction, but if you're just adding small amounts of material at a time to some kind of primordial supermarket stew of shampoo, cleaning fluids and fruit juice, then a nasty reaction is pretty unlikely.

All the same, the disposal system should be designed at least as well as an ordinary lab sink, with a decent sized trap and maybe a one-way valve.

#4 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 05:33 AM:

Okay, leaving aside whether it's sane to prohibit all liquids (and it seems TSA is banning ointments too, though they don't seem to have published a minimum viscosity for substances to be taken on aircraft),
how do you realistically dispose of confiscated liquids? You can't take each bottle of water and have the bomb squad go over it individually!
As Steve says, it may make sense, pragmatically, just to dump it all in one big container, though a spash-proof container with a trap would be better than a big open bucket.

#5 ::: Ian Osmond ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 07:42 AM:

I have to admit that, when I saw that airports were doing that, I was tempted -- but I didn't! -- to show up with a gallon bottle of clearly-labelled bleach, and a gallon bottle of clearly-labelled ammonia.

Just, y'know, to see. . .

Seriously, though -- if you were a terrorist, wouldn't creating clouds of poison gas in the airport be almost as effective a form of terrorism as blowing up a plane?

#6 ::: Roy G. Ovrebo ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 08:42 AM:

Ian Osmond: Seriously, though -- if you were a terrorist, wouldn't creating clouds of poison gas in the airport be almost as effective a form of terrorism as blowing up a plane?

It'd be exactly as effective. We've discussed this in a certain forum, and the conclusion was that terrorists are stupid for focusing on travel as a target.

Think holidays. Think crowds. Think shopping malls and amusement parks.

#7 ::: G. Jules ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 09:51 AM:

...oh. So that's why they had all of those hazmat response crews outside the Lindbergh terminal when I showed up for my flight yesterday. I wondered why only a couple of the airlines had long check-in lines.

There are other hazards from liquids than just the go-boom and create-poison-gas ones, as this showed. I wonder if OSHA has looked into the potential for carcinogen exposure from broken bottles of acetone, etc in the bins? (All the ones I've seen have been those big plastic rubbish/recyling bins on wheels.)

Apparently now they're profiling nervous behaviors to single people out for questioning. Which would make sense, if not for the fact that airport security checkpoints are very good at turning previously unafraid individuals into nervous and frightened ones. I feel sorry for all of the infrequent fliers who are going to be picked up by undertrained TSA staff for looking nervous when confronted by yelling people and dogs and guns.

#8 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 09:59 AM:

...terrorists are stupid for focusing on travel as a target.

There's no indication that the terrorists are focusing on travel. The TSA, since they have "transportation" in their title, are concentrating on scaring the bejezus out of travelers.

#9 ::: John ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 10:05 AM:

Back long ago when I worked in the kitchen of a restaurant, one of the other workers washed the floor down with an ammonia based cleaner, then dumped bleach down the drain to sterilize everything. The green cloud of chlorine enveloped him, and was very effective in clearing the kitchen of personnel! Fortunately the kitchen fans cleared the gas quickly, and the worker wasn't badly hurt.

Terrorists don't have to get on the planes to accomplish anything. They just have to get to the airports themselves. Airport concourses, thanks to those long security lines, are PACKED with people, and of course they are all carrying baggage and packages, and equally of course they have NOT gone through security yet...

#10 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 10:25 AM:

Can something still be ironic if it is unsurprising?

I'd like to say that it is ironic that the only casualities from this latest attempt at a terrorist attack came from the attempt to prevent the attack. However, this is completely unsurprising.

I guess dumping everything together is the correct procedure for a chem lab. But that's predicated on having well designed lab sinks, right? (And perhaps also having fume hoods?)

#11 ::: Electric Landlady ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 11:00 AM:

Steve: Come on now. Even in a chem lab there are one or two things you really shouldn't mix. (I was thinking of permanganate -- glad to see not all my knowledge has dribbled out my ears since I graduated.)

BTW, don't miss the sidebar on the rodents in ether.

#12 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 11:09 AM:

Wasn't there an episode at the old pre-Flatiron Tor office building where a janitor inadvertently performed the Make Chlorine Gas In Your Own Bathroom! experiment?

#13 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 11:28 AM:

Mixing everything in large vats, especially in places with a lot of random ozone around (electrics, especially air conditioning, produce ozone - this is why cleaning your A/C with pine-scented disinfectant gives sniffles and irritated throats) will infallibly give you a combination of airborne irritants and rotting goop. The normal mixtures won't produce the sort of irritation the linked article talks about, or at least not without a lot of smaller-scale cases first, though.

For maximum random liquid havoc, I'd suggest handing over (with a nice smile) a large bottle of peroxide ("oh, this hair treatment, I forgot about that, I'm sorry, Officer") and a jumbo-sized tube of superglue. Common ammonia-based cleaning fluids are also fun. We aren't after nerve gas or Boom Juice here, just messy useless unpleasantness, and in my experience, chemistry tends naturally towards messy useless unpleasantness - with the added bonus that it could plausibly be purely due to incompetence or laziness.

Slightly more unusual possibilities for creative unpleasantness include Thai fish sauce, liquidized garlic & onion, and mustard oil.

It won't kill anyone, but putting a busy departure gate or security checkpoint out of action is still a win for the bad guys, and even if it isn't actually taken down it'll increase general bad feeling and offpissedness. I suggest "microterrorism" as a term for this sort of thing, with the minor caveat that as far as I know it isn't being practiced.

#14 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 11:53 AM:

The rodents in organic solvent story was going when I was an undergrad in the 70s - except then it had happened in the 60s and the solvent was given as either formaldehyde or isopropyl alcohol - both of which (unlike ether) are miscible with water).

It's good to see that lab hygiene has improved since the mid-90s, but I still think that to do any damage with permanganates, say, you'd need quite a concentration.

I did wonder if the current ban on travelling with liquids wasn't to stop a completely different attack altogether (which I'm definitely not describing here) that could potentially simply end all passenger air transport.

#15 ::: TChem ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 12:01 PM:

Sam Kelly #13 said: "It won't kill anyone, but putting a busy departure gate or security checkpoint out of action is still a win for the bad guys"

I was thinking exactly the same thing, although the example that came to mine was polyurethane pre-polymers, which when mixed sits around for a few minutes and then expands by a thousand percent or so into the type of foam you see hanging out of cheap couches. I had a prof that pulled that joke every semester (he'd look at the goo sadly, say "oh, this stuff is really old, I guess it didn't work", and then continue with the lecture until he heard gasps as the stuff oozed over the top of the beaker), and he was always able to get most of the chemists that KNEW what the reaction should look like.

#16 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 12:04 PM:

TSA helping make things go boom since 2001...

#17 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 12:10 PM:

Oh, polyurethane foam, shiny. Less easy to make look entirely innocent, though, I'd think.

(Also: having belatedly googled microterrorism, apparently it's already a term of art for some other purpose. Never mind then.)

The smart thing to do for the TSA would be to use supercritical water chambers - the stuff will enthusiastically eat any random crap and excrete clean detritus. I don't think it's currently commercially viable, though I may be wrong, but remember, the whole social and political landscape has been changed, right?

#18 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 12:11 PM:

Well, I didn't have high school chemistry, so I had no idea that one does not use bleach to disinfect the cat's litter box.

Fortunately one of my roommates (pre-vet med) DID know that this was a no-no and prevented the incipient gassing of the household.

(I'd never had to clean a litterbox until I was in college -- all of my cats had been allowed to go outdoors, and were in the habit of eliminating outside.)

#19 ::: John ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 01:02 PM:

Apparently my mom didn't know not to use bleach in the toilet bowl, either. Or, at least she should have flushed it after using bleach. I suppose she didn't realize the product had bleach in it; it was a long time ago but she certainly learned that lesson!

#20 ::: Ailsa Ek ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 01:25 PM:

#18

I knew not to mix ammonia and bleach, but cleaned a litter box with bleach once anyway. Good thing it was a breezy day and I had the windows open.

#21 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 01:29 PM:

One word, Mentos.

#22 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 02:06 PM:

washed the floor down with an ammonia based cleaner, then dumped bleach down the drain to sterilize everything. The green cloud of chlorine enveloped him,

Similar story, except it was a bunch of people cleaning simultaneously, so folks didn't know what specific stuff was being used. The guy who was using bleach where someone had already used chlorine, was in a janitors closet with the door closed. Ended up in the hospital.

#23 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 02:10 PM:

had already used chlorine

ammonia. had already used ammonia.

sigh.

#24 ::: camryl ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 03:04 PM:

#13 Sam: Your suggestions remind me of Crowley's approach to efficiently mass-inducing sinfulness in _Good Omens_.

#25 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 04:39 PM:

Re #12:

Yes.

However, since I was not present, I can provide no color. I think it was during my siege with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, so I am glad I missed it as my lungs were not happy critters in those days.

#26 ::: theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 05:21 PM:

It isn't chlorine that's produced by mixing bleach and ammonia; it's chloramine. Quite nasty stuff, but it's colorless.

#27 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 05:51 PM:

I wonder how often these barrels are emptied, and what might happen if the incident was timed for when a barrel was almost empty?

Also, what would happen to anyone who tried to seperate Nanny Ogg from her supply of liquid refreshments.

#28 ::: John ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 06:06 PM:

#26: are you sure? I saw the cloud pouring out of the drain when the kitchen worker poured bleach into the drain he had just poured ammonia, and it was a hideous shade of green. It certainly wasn't colorless!

#29 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 06:12 PM:

Mike, there's no indication in the article that they were emptying liquids all together. I know that locally they're just having people put the liquids in their containers into the vats and then throwing them out.

#30 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 06:37 PM:

Marilee, I didn't mean to suggest that (though I suppose I did, in search of a snappy title). I assume that the containers are simply being thrown into the bin. (If I thought they were actually commingling the fluid, it would be time to storm the Bastille.) But it's also true that tossing containers in at random -- plastic, metal, and glass -- is not at all wise.

But then, none of this has ever been about wisdom. If it was actually believed that some of these containers might be explosive, the response would not have been "seize it and throw it in a bucket," never mind "Let's give them to the less fortunate." (We will not go into the cost comparison between the seizure program and, you know, providing the less fortunate with something more substantial than Evian, Mountain Dew, and Revlon products.)

#31 ::: bellatrys ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 09:11 PM:

the response would not have been "seize it and throw it in a bucket," never mind "Let's give them to the less fortunate."

In PA and MA, the response has been "Let's sell all the loot on E-bay and pocket the profits!" [altho' MA subcontracts the actual bother of the confiscate-selling to NH, b/c Logan can't be bothered to deal with the mess.]

Fine old Yankee traditions of entrepreneurship &c.

#32 ::: Nancy C ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 09:36 PM:

JC in comment 10,
no, it is very much no longer acceptable to pour it all down the drain in a University lab. My entire departement (down to the secretaries!) gets trained every year on how to dispose of solid waste (which may be a liquid or a gas, by government definition), that it goes into sorted and labeled containers (e.g. all the acids go into one, the bases into another), that the containers are in secondary containment and not left open and offgassing, who to call when the containers are full, to start a new one when the containers are full, and how to fill out the label/paperwork.

I believe this falls under EPA and RCRA. I find it very boring, since my work is all on computers, and the sign on the door says, "No chemicals in this lab." Apparently, I work in a vacuum.

#33 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 10:00 PM:

Once upon a time, as the verse goes,

The inattentive chemist,
The story's brief to tell;
What he believed was H2O
Was really HCl.

No, I didn't do it. I was grading papers, someone else was setting up an experiment. Instructor was washing glassware, and threw a handful of [brand name redacted to foil terrorists] cleanser into a two-liter Erlenmeyer with three or so inches of clear fluid in the bottom. I remember looking up and seeing the flask in his hand, and then turning back to the papers.

It was very interesting. Brought Cyril Falls's The Great War right into my upper respiratory tract. Nobody was really hurt, fortunately, though I was very close to punching a hole in a window with the nearest available object. I don't actually remember a green cloud, and I'm sure the concentration was not extremely high, but then we weren't pausing to take field notes.

It is unquestionably true that whoever had used the flask (that wasn't me either) should have properly disposed of the contents rather than leaving them by (or in, I don't now recall) the sink. But, well, this is what sometimes happens even to people who know exactly what they're doing. And the three of us all knew instantly what had happened, and to get the hell out and vent the space.

#34 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2006, 11:27 PM:

It reminds me a bit of the chemistry lecture where the instructor held up two beakers of colorless transparent fluid, said he was going to demonstrate how hard the water was, said the liquid one beaker was from the north end of town and the other from the south end, and poured one into the other. Instant gel! Then he explained what he'd really done. Alcohol plus calcium(?) acetate: result, home-made Sterno-equivalent.

Two people dumping two liquids in a security bin, and someone else dropping a small timed sparker inside....

#35 ::: Nick Kiddle ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 12:19 AM:

John M. Ford: the version of that ditty that I was raised on went:

[Insert appropriate name] is dead and gone
His face we'll see no more
For what he thought was H20
Was H2SO4

#36 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 12:19 AM:

"Profiling nervous behaviors"? That is the most ghodawfully STUPID thing I've ever heard... well, maybe the second-most. Not only is it going to give an appalling number of false positives (as G. Jules points out), but it will almost certainly NOT catch a genuine terrorist. Remember, these guys are doing it for God and glory (not necessarily in that order); they may be exhilarated, but they're not likely to be nervous!

#37 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 12:51 AM:

Nick: I know that, but it wasn't sulfuric in the flask in question. (Still wouldn't have been good if it was.) And the first line I know is "Alas, the thirsty freshman."

But poetry is like that, and given the indignities I've visited on Auden, this was pretty darn mild.

#38 ::: Jenny Islander ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 03:44 AM:

Lee, I don't have the link at hand, but try searching on Dulles, TSA, Raiders. Apparently, TSA has been trying to copy the airport security programs of Israel et al. by training employees in some airports to ignore bags and instead look at people. The employees were taught to recognize signs of unusual tension, then engage anybody who seemed hinky in banter that might trip up somebody who was following a script, such as asking if they had seen yesterday's Raiders game when the Raiders hadn't played. Anybody who still seemed hinky was pulled out of line and searched. The Dulles pilot program caught no terrorists, but nearly everybody who was singled out for a search had something to hide (stolen ticket, illegal drugs, etc.). Meanwhile, the airport check-in process was 30 percent faster for everybody else.

The catch: TSA has been ordered by Congress to look for nail clippers, search babies, etc., etc., etc. In order to fulfill these directives, TSA has had to raid its own research budget. The people-not-possessions program is in place in about a dozen airports nationwide and doesn't seem likely to spread very far.

#39 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 04:36 AM:

Here's a link to an International Herald Tribune article on the "behavioral profiling" program, found via Bruce Schneier, whose brief comments are here.

What I think is going on -- note qualifier -- is that, as with many other issues, the agencies involved want a precisely defined solution: a list of things Not to Be Carried Aboard,* Dykes -- uh, People to Watch Out For, anything that can be imposed without requiring thought or discretion on the part of the people doing the work. We know they've been throwing money at Electronischen Sinnfickgeräte and other goodies from Alberich Zwergtechnik GmbH.** (This principle is in effect in a lot more areas than security.)
Of course, Swiss Army knives and fulminate of Prell don't attack airplanes; people do. But anyone with adequate sensory equipment can find objects for minimum wage. Identifying behavior requires both training and, in all probability, a certain amount of natural aptitude. And if the system is not to be worse than the problem, the person has to avoid preconscious judgements.***

*"The escalator sign said 'Dogs must be carried,' but I didn't have a dog." -- London Transport joke, of forgotten provenance.
**If we could show that the Very Large Hadron Collider or Frickin' Enormous Baseline Interferometer could detect terrorists . . . uh, never mind.
***q.v. "Boarding while brown."

#40 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 06:02 AM:

If we could show that the Very Large Hadron Collider or Frickin' Enormous Baseline Interferometer could detect terrorists . . . uh, never mind.

"Well, Mr President, the idea is to detect the terrorists in the Crab Nebula so we don't have to detect them here."

The employees were taught to recognize signs of unusual tension, then engage anybody who seemed hinky in banter that might trip up somebody who was following a script

GUARD: "Deine fahrkarten. Auf wiedersehn, und good luck!"

ESCAPER: "Thank you. Oops..."

#41 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 06:13 AM:

It sounds like somebody hearing about the El Al methods, and completely missing the point. It's a good thing that nobody has compared what El Al does with what Terry Karney, as a skilled interrogator, might do, or the TSA would be recruiting people with bad German accents and their own leather overcoats.

It would stop a lot if the TSA did follow the El Al approach, but that needs competent, well-paid staff, with training and experience. It does need some of the same skills as a genuine interrogator. And all that costs money, and doesn't look expensive.

Spend the same money on minimum-wage gun-bunnies and it looks like you're really doing a lot.

#42 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 06:42 AM:

El Al security and Israeli airport security are two different things, though not unconnected. El Al has fewer than 40 aircraft, and it has been said more than once that their approach would likely not, er, fly with the major carriers.

There is a detailed discussion of security at Ben Gurion Airport, including a section on Behavior Pattern Recognition, here. Now, the main cited source is a man who was security director there for five years, but is now part of a private security training firm, so one could read this as a commercial for his approach (and business). He also admits that Ben Gurion has a much smaller passenger flow than many other international hubs, so some procedures would have to be modified. But you can decide for yourself whether the approach makes sense, or at least more sense than what we have now.

#43 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 07:07 AM:

And I remember the story, about three years ago now, of the senior Israeli policeman who flew from Ben Gurion to NY for a conference and, on unpacking his carryon luggage in his hotel room, found he had accidentally brought his pistol with him. So nobody's perfect...

#44 ::: G. Jules ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 07:50 AM:

Yeah, it's not the idea of behavioral monitoring that bothers me so much as the crappy-ass execution and limited training. I've met a number of very nice TSA agents, and contrary to popular opinion, I'd estimate that they make up the bulk of its workforce. But there are also some who seem to get off on the power trip. The idea of them with the ability to take me into questioning because I "looked nervous" and didn't answer their banter the way they thought I ought to is unnerving.

And at least some of the nervous behavior is generated by the TSA's behavior -- eg, taking the bag of a teenager traveling alone from the X-Ray machine, demanding to see her ticket in a rather nasty voice, and then telling her you have to take her bag. Not telling her where, not telling her why, just turning away and taking it without telling her anything about why. It's not a horrifying security story, but it is a pretty typical one, and if you didn't travel often, I think that would be upsetting, even if you didn't have a thing to hide. (Actual example, btw. She got her bag back, they were just screening for explosives.)

Being a light-skinned female with blue eyes and a bored expression is a great way to get through security fast, I've found. I fly an average of three times a month, but I've been stopped "randomly" maybe three times in the past couple years, and all of those times I was traveling on a one-way ticket or a ticket I'd bought that day (things they flag in the system). My male coworkers with darker skin get "randomly" stopped all the time.

I can confirm that I haven't seen anyone pouring the liquids into the bin, just chucking in the container. I suspect that got started because of news photo ops where they got people to pour things -- makes for a better picture.

On chemical use in labs -- during my OSHA-40 Hour training (mandatory for those who work with/around hazardous materials), our trainer told us that the worst lab packs they do are at colleges, because professors and students do such a crappy job of organization.

#45 ::: John ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 08:09 AM:

Back in 2002 my wife and I flew to Hawaii, and every time we went through security my wife got the full treatment, while I passed through without a look. She got so tired of having to take her shoes off that she started walking through the security check with the laces untied.

She couldn't figure out why she was being singled out for all the attention while I was passing through unscathed, especially since I was the one by far who would have looked more threatening (compared to her, that is). It wasn't until we got home and she started unpacking her purse that we decided what flagged the security; she had a PDA, portable CD player, backup batteries, extra memory sticks for her laptop, and a calculator in her purse. When she ran it through the X-ray machine it probably looked like the whole purse was full of explosives and wires!

#46 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 08:31 AM:

John M. Ford #33:

I learned that as:

The professor took a drink in his lab,
Now he will drink no more;
For what he thought was H2O
Was H2SO4.

#47 ::: oliviacw ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 10:16 AM:

Ah, this reminds me of my sister's 7th grade science class. One day the teacher showed them how to measure the caloric content of food (I guess like in this project, although my memory is hazy now as to the details). The next day, students were to bring in various foods to experiment with.

I, her older, smarter sister (!), helped her raid our kitchen for interesting items. Two of those included marshmallows, and hot peppers. The marshmallow did fine, but when it came to the pepper - well, they had to evacuate the science wing. Apparently burning a pepper over an open flame in an open space has a similar effect to spraying the students with pepper spray....

#48 ::: TChem ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 12:42 PM:

My high school chem teacher's version was:

"Johnny was a chemist,
But Johnny is no more,
For what he thought was H2O..."

Oral traditions among scientists. Interesting.

#49 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 01:12 PM:

I’m just glad that Elise flew out to Anaheim the night before.

Me too!

#50 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 01:23 PM:

On recent screening discussion:

What can I do? I'm a middle-aged white female who is scared of flying, partly because I get airsick, even with meds. I only fly once or twice a year, so I am usually nervous. Most of the time I am on the obligatory yearly visit to my mother.

And I have no idea if the Raiders are a football team or a baseball team.

I am seriously considering taking the train from Minneapolis to Florida this year. The ticket prices are comprable, though I would have to pay for meals on the train. But I don't get train sick, would get to see a lot more of the country, and would be able to bring back all the nice little shampoo bottle from the motel while keeping my luggage with me.

#51 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 01:30 PM:

The Northwest flight recently turned back to the Netherlands originated in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

August 24, 2006 - 11:08

Justice minister: Terrorism not involved in flight diverted to Amsterdam

TOSTERLING

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) - The interrogation of 12 men who were removed from a U.S. airliner after they aroused the suspicions of air marshals and crew produced no evidence of terrorism, the Dutch justice minister said Thursday.

"So far there are no signs that this was a terrorist threat," said Judith Sluiter, a spokeswoman for Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner.

More Bushite hysteria. Someone is going to get killed. No, wait, someone already has....

#52 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 01:38 PM:

Chiming in with Nancy C et alia; I had the EH&S lecture on basic lab safety yesterday and we are not to pour things indiscriminately down drains, or even commingle bottles going off to disposal.

We were also given the all-night number for the local water & sewer utility, so that if there is an accidental slug discharge we can warn the people who work with the outflow. I think that's new.

#53 ::: John ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 02:56 PM:

Our water treatment people send out brochures every year telling homeowners not to pour chemicals, etc, down the drain, since some of them mess up the digesters at the sewage treatment center. The digesters are very large tanks or vats where the human and other organic waste is...digested, by hungry bacteria. Chemicals in the wastewater kill the bacteria, resulting in untreated effluent making it out into the streams. Not good.

#54 ::: Nancy C ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 03:17 PM:

Magenta Griffin,

When I vacationed by train in 1999, the meals were included in the price of a sleeper cabin ticket, and the food was fantastic.

#55 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 06:00 PM:

Nancy, the sleeper cabins are expensive. I think Magenta was comparing a regular seat to the plane fare.

#56 ::: Sal ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 06:53 PM:

Kids just wanna have fun.

aluminum foil + The Works bathroom cleaner + 2 liter bottle == "Go BOOM!"

Home videos of The Works goes BOOM! are all the rage these days on YouTube.

What would happen if someone tossed one of those into the vat full of liquid and ointment cast-offs at the screening point?

#57 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2006, 09:48 PM:

TSA Memo #[redacted]

This Week's Mind[redacted]s

--Blood: Obviously a liquid. In the bucket.
--Sweat, tears: Almost forgot. Terror nearly won.
--Air: My kid said she learned in school that this was a "fluid," like, I dunno, lighter fluid, I guess. That's good enough for me.
--Jet fuel. Not only liquid, flammable! And inflammable, too, which is supposed to be even worse.
--Nitroglycerine pills: Jeebus, what kind of medical system do we have here, anyway?
--Number 1: Can replace airplane cans (using liquid water) with more seats. Big plus with airlines.
--Guns: Remove from prohibited list pronto. Need them for the snakes.

#58 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2006, 03:25 PM:

Given the lack of concern over combining chemicals inside the airport, I doubt anybody's given this aspect much thought, but how are they disposing of these barrels once they're full?

How much of this mess is going to end up in our aquifers?

#59 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2006, 03:36 PM:

Mike, that's... that's...
ROFLMAO!

(Was doing that with Lin the other night. Her husband brought up mixing sulfuric and nitric acids and couldn't understand why we were very nearly ROFLMAO. I don't believe he's had a chemistry class.)

#60 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2006, 03:56 PM:

TChem #15: is the resulting foam safe to touch afterwards, or is it as nasty as the component chemicals (the link says ventilate, glove, etc.)? And how quickly does it solidify?

I'm asking because it looks like a good gap-filling material, if you could position the freshly-mixed liquid quickly enough. Old houses. Winter. Do the math.

#61 ::: TChem ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2006, 05:34 PM:

Xopher: I'll start with the scary stuff (not so scary). Here is the MSDS for one of the components, the other one is here(pdf). What they boil down to for me is: wear gloves, and do it while the weather's still nice so you can open the windows.

Now that that's out of the way, I think that sounds like a really excellent idea. The polyurethane itself, so long as you mix the components thoroughly, is quite safe. Depending on the ratios, you can end up with a very stiff but bubble-filled material, or one that's pretty much identical to the yellowish blocks of stuff you see if you cut open a couch. It wouldn't be hard to cut away any excess that oozed out, the harder stuff is still quite crumbly when you thwack at it.

The reaction usually takes 1-2 minutes to get going after mixing, and once it does it expands for about a minute and is completely cured in, oh, less than 10 minutes, certainly. Probably more like 5. You wouldn't be able to make a huge batch all at once, but the mixture is thick enough--somewhere between cheap maple syrup and molasses--that it would stay pretty well put.

After I wrote all this I found this place that sells the stuff for sealing cracks in boats for less than the lab demo place, so I guess this isn't a new idea. But at least we know it'll definitely work!

#62 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2006, 07:09 PM:

Xopher, TChem (60,61, and supra):
There are various self-expanding-foam-in-a-can products filling shelves in hardware and building supply stores. Some of them are specifically firerated for sealing cable runs that go between floors. There are also turn-key solutions for foam-in-place packaging, and structural foam. Some are isourethanes (or were years ago when I worked with some).

#63 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2006, 10:31 PM:

tchem#61: I recall a once-favored pour-in-as-a-liquid-and-watch-it-foam insulater that has become very unpopular because it outgases formaldehyde (some of which traps in the foam and comes out _s_l_o_w_l_y_, so working with the windows open wasn't enough). Was that something else? Does this stuff outgas quickly? Or is it usable only for small areas, as the foam-in-a-can products Houghton mentions? (The data I recall were for insulating an entire house, not just sealing cracks.)

#64 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2006, 11:13 PM:

My father used one of those foam-in-place mixes to insulate the BF Goodrich chest freezer we had. (It had been in a flood, so the original insulation was, well, dead and probably returning to life.) Four inches of foam-in-place worked pretty well: it usually was running about ten below (-10F). I think I've seen the canned stuff sold for use as insulation/filler in walls around doors and windows.

#65 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2006, 01:14 AM:

It's great for dealing with wasps or bees that have lodged in a hollow space in your house. Wait for a time when the insects will be quiescent, then stick in the soda-straw spout of a can of foam insulator, and spray until the stuff starts coming out of the other exits. It traps adult insects, entombs the colony, and its outgassing as it cures helps kill them off. Basically, they become part of the insulation.

#66 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2006, 01:55 AM:

"Surviving a nuclear blast wave and firestorm will require heavy insulation. Stone walls, like those in Federal prisons, provide such insulation. So do masses of paper, as found in university libraries. And homeowners will have walls filled with urethane insulation and dead bugs."

"What about file clerks?"

"They've ditched the paper for CD-ROMs and USB drives. They're not only screwed, but their data's going to dissolve like sugar in an Old Fashioned. As I was saying, there will be three forces competing after the attack. The prisoners will have violence. The librarians will have organization, knowledge, and a wildly eclectic set of other skills. The homeowners will have a sense of outraged privilege and a willingness to live with dead bugs in their walls. I wonder who'll win."

--Prof. Groeteschele

#67 ::: Michael ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2006, 10:18 AM:

I had the joy of passing through Boston's Logan Airport early morning right after the TSA had gone to Condition-Nancy-Reagan-Red (whoop! whoop! whoop!)

Aside from the happiness of being trapped for an hour in a former corridor full of sheeple who just could not believe that THEIR bottled water / perfume / skin cream was not extra special and exempt from the new policy pasted on every wall, announced on the PA at 5 minute intervals, and shouted at us by TSA screeners & their wranglers, was the sight of "the barrel".

Yes, those oh-so-clever (in)security folks had packed us into a closely enclosed space, crushed from behind by the press of late passengers, a barrier ahead, to determine if we were carrying flammable or biologically active materials, by tossing them into an open barrel in our midst!

The fumes of cologne, perfume, and whatever else were overpowering as the crowd inched it's way around the noxious vessel, everyone inhaling a heady dose as it permeated our clothes and skin, making eyes burn and throats rasp as idiot after idiot insisted on arguing over it the case for their water, lotion, or, not kidding, lighter.

All were told they could return to check-in to have it placed in the hold (unlikely as flights were already being mass cancelled) or, yep, toss it into the barrel.

The only bright spot in my morning was it didn't flash over while I was in close proximity, and the irony of such an accident being precipitated by our "own" folks.

Stupidest moment? Not the witches cauldron the TSA was brewing in the center of a crowd but the "screener" who denied an airline pilot his bottle of water. Yes, they thought the fella who flies the plane might need to sneak on something nasty!

Security theater: Bad drama performed by inept actors, appearing at airports (but nowhere else) near you.

#68 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2006, 01:25 PM:

Remember, these guys are doing it for God and glory (not necessarily in that order); they may be exhilarated, but they're not likely to be nervous!

... because they are no longer human? I've heard this line a few times. Never washed with me.

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