Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ohio River + sewage = nitrous oxide

When I've thought of pollution in the Ohio River in the past, I'd never thought that bacteria interacting with sewage (or wastewater, as it's now called) produce nitrous oxide gas. But a report just out in Chemical & Engineering News has me thinking about it. Not much, but some.

It seems that new research shows that the river produces more nitrous oxide than previously thought. That's important because nitrous oxide is considered a greenhouse gas, For now, we'll put aside questions of whether there is such a thing as man-made global warming or climate change or whatever. That scientific question too quickly deteriorates into a political one, and it's one that I don't want to get involved with on this blog.

The article linked above has a link to another article citing nitrous oxide emissions as the largest single threat to the earth's ozone layer.

Now there's more to think about.

Yes, this is the same nitrous oxide that is used in cars to boost engine output, and it is used as an anesthetic. It also has some, uh, recreational uses. I know this firsthand. Back in 12th grade chemistry, we made some for a class assignment. But a couple of my buddies and I apparently made too much or got too close. When we left chemistry and went to English, we had a bit of a buzz and were pretty useless.

Anyway, the Ohio River is probably pretty insignificant as a nitrous oxide producer on a global scale, but I wouldn't be surprised if findings like this are used to put more pressure on communities to improve their sewage treatment systems, especially when it comes to separating sanitary and stormwater sewers.

Or maybe not. You never know.