What do Americans and Finns know about Ammonia?

Via Jon Eisen on twitter, Hal Levin at MicroBEnet has gotten himself into trouble with this post (now deleted as not reflecting the views of MicroBEnet). The part that annoyed readers (including me, after seeing the tweet calling it out).

On May 8th, CNN reported on “Top 20 most polluted cities in the world.” An esteemed colleague sent an email today to a small, informal discussion group of building scientists (the majority are former EPA scientists), that read as follows:

“Only in America would people be dumb enough to talk about the “diameter” of a non-spherical particle. I bet even in Finland they know that ammonia is a gas and not a particle, and I’m not aware that these others mentioned are carcinogens. .
From the web today:
CNN reports, “PM2.5 refers to the diameter measured in microns of particulates such as ammonia, carbon, nitrates and sulfate — which are small enough to pass into the bloodstream and cause diseases such as emphysema and cancer.”

I hesitate to provide the link to the CNN post, but if you still want to, you can find the CNN story at http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/08/world/asia/india-pollution-who/index.html?iref=allsearch.

If you follow the link to the tweet, you can see that I weighed in with some replies. As an alternative way to procrastinate the work I should actually be doing on a Sunday afternoon, I decided to dissect this. The first irony about “only in America” is that CNN reporter Madison Park is currently working out of the Hong Kong Bureau of CNN. I suspect she could be an ABK, and she went to UC-Berkeley so I guess we can blame America for her reporting. But she was a journalism and history major, so despite covering health for CNN, I suspect she defers to her sources in writing things like the passage that offends Levin’s email correspondent. The information she’s reporting on is from the World Health Organization and searching their website for “ammonia air pollution” gives this page from the WHO media centre as one of the hits. What does it say about ammonia and particles?

Particulate matter

Definition and principal sources

PM affects more people than any other pollutant. The major components of PM are sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water. It consists of a complex mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances suspended in the air. The most health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 10 microns or less, (≤ PM10), which can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.

There must be some way to blame George Bush or the Koch brothers for this info on the WHO website, right?

It’s somewhat interesting that an email list full of former  EPA scientists might have let this pass, as I would imagine that some of them might have worked with their counterparts at WHO. But not being privy to this email list, I can’t assume that nobody pushed back.

I was also struck by a couple of other things:

Only in America would people be dumb enough to talk about the “diameter” of a non-spherical particle.

There are plenty of things that have diameters that are not spherical. Circles, cylinders, and cones, for example. We speak of the diameter of the earth although it is not perfectly spherical. Moreover, even highly irregular solids, such as proteins, can be discussed in terms of their effective radii and diameters: the Radius of gyration. From the point of view of passing through filters or blood vessel walls, this seems perfectly appropriate to me.

I bet even in Finland they know that ammonia is a gas and not a particle

In the twitter discussion I wondered what the emailer has against Finland. But here I wanted to discuss a few other things:

  • As long as we’re being nitpicky: Ammonia is a gas at ambient temperature and pressure in the cities being reported on, but it’s not always a gas.
  • The average American thinks of ammonia as a liquid because they can go to the supermarket and buy cleaning products labeled as ammonia. The one shown is actually from Australia, so even if they don’t have this kind of stuff in Finland, it’s unlikely that usage that fails to distinguish ammonia from ammonium hydroxide solutions is limited to the US.
  • Unless I missed a revolution in chemistry, gas molecules are particles.

The decision to take it down at MicroBEnet makes sense, insofar as the goal of that site is to educate the public about the microbiology of the built environment, not to divide readers into those who agree and those who are offended. Insofar as microBE.net is funding a collaboration between Eisen and Levin, this kerfuffle may have some unfortunate hangover effects for an interesting project. Let’s hope this doesn’t poison the built environment.

What I find both sad and interesting in the now-deleted post is: What drives someone to take a set of minor issues in a news story that are arguably not even errors and not only decide that this reflects a kind of egregious ignorance that is unique to one country, but also share that opinion with a bunch of strangers? It seems likely that both the emailer and Levin thought that this view of Americans (and Finns?) is not only accurate but also obvious.