An oh dear in the New York Times

On this red mud in Hungary:

Soon after the spill, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences declared that the red sludge was nontoxic. The chief executive of MAL went on camera to say it was a completely harmless substance, that it could simply be washed away with water.

They were quickly proved wrong. The first responders suffered severe burns; apparently no one warned them that the sludge had a pH of 13, as caustic as lye.

It isn\’t \”as caustic as lye\”. It\’s caustic because it is lye!

Jeebus, was The Register the only outlet that bothered to ask someone who actually knows about this shit?

8 comments on “An oh dear in the New York Times

  1. Is n’t lye sodium hydoroxide?Not nice stuff.

    Tim adds: Yup, sodium hydroxide, lye, caustic soda, all the same stuff. It’s in the red mud because that’s how you make alumina: boil bauxite in sodium hydroxide.

  2. I suspect that this is a question of cultural differences. The Register is written by and for techies. That’s a culture where people want to know how things really work, and are willing to ask questions. The NYT is like the Guardian. It’s written by leftie arts graduates for the benefit of the champagne socialist “liberal” elite. That’s a culture where people don’t see any need to ask questions because they assume that they already know everything that’s worth knowing.

  3. “said it could simply be washed away with water … [but] … The first responders suffered severe burns”

    I’ve forgotten a lot of my chemistry, but can’t these both be correct? If touched undiluted it will casue severe burns, but if washed away with water (i.e. diluted) it can become perfectly harmless?

  4. Richard- “I’ve forgotten a lot of my chemistry, but can’t these both be correct? If touched undiluted it will casue severe burns, but if washed away with water (i.e. diluted) it can become perfectly harmless?”

    Both are almost certainly true. The standard way of dealing with most things is to dilute them. Sodium hydroxide is drain cleaner. Strong enough to dissolve gunk in your drains, harmless enough to flow away down the sewer once it is diluted.

    What is more it is highly reactive. Any impurities in the water and the chances are good that they will react. Producing, well, salts most of the time.

    I am not sure pouring it into the Danube would be ideal, but you could do a lot worse. We are talking about clay mixed with the stuff some Norwegians make lutefisk from.

    Tim adds: The Danube isn’t ideal, no, but it will work. What is ideal is seawater. The Greek alumina plant disposes of its red mud in exactly this manner. Dump it in the Gulf of Corinth. Sufficiently diluted it becomes, well, silt really.

  5. Pardon my ignorance, do Americans say lye where Brits say caustic soda? I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the word spoken in the UK.

  6. Isn’t lye used in the preparation of maize grain to make it digestible? Can’t be all that poisonous or carcinogenic or there’d be a shortage of Mexicans.

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