The Canary in the Coal Mine

First off, a little update. We reached the 10 Followers mark! My thanks to you, and I hope you will continue to enjoy my rants – er, entries. Also, my apologies for no entry yesterday: last minute schedule change. You can expect to hear from me almost every week day.
One other update: I do listen to your feedback, including from journalists. Yes, one of my best friends is a journalist – one of the good ones. He suggested that I provide links to articles that are the subjects of the blog. So, here’s today’s link:
http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_TOXIC_WATER_MUSSELS?SITE=NCASH&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT
Now, why didn’t I think of that? Thanks, Terry.
You’ve probably heard of canaries being used in coal mines to provide an early warning signal to the miners that carbon monoxide or methane levels were becoming unsafe. These are odorless, colorless gases that humans can’t detect until it’s too late. Canaries are more sensitive to these gases, and so are affected before the miners. If the canary starts acting funny – or worse – get out of the mine!
Is there something similar to this that we can use to test water quality? “Bioassays” have been used for many years, mostly on wastewater discharges. But one of our challenges in such testing is to identify the best “canaries.”
In the linked article, black mussels have been chosen. How much water does a black mussel drink? I don’t know, but they do filter a huge amount of water to capture their food. Aquatic organisms are typically more sensitive to water quality, because they live in the water, rather than just drinking a couple of liters per day like humans. So the basis for today’s AP story looks to be good science in practice: they seem to have chosen an appropriate “canary.”
Remember our blog on the Detection Level for Reporting? The chemicals that the researchers are looking for may actually be at levels below the DLR in the water. But because of the large quantity of water that the mussels filter, they are likely to accumulate some of these chemicals in their bodies. The researchers will not be testing the water; they will test the tissues of the mussels instead, where the concentrations should be much higher than in the water itself – perhaps at concentrations above the DLR.
Will that mean the water is unsafe to drink? We’ll have to pose that question to the mussels – or some other “canary” with a body more similar to humans – in a lengthy set of toxicity, carcinogenicity, and other tests. And that’s going to take a lot of time – and “canaries.” So don’t expect any new regulations to come out of research like this for several years.
And you may also expect that some groups will come forward to oppose such testing, in the name of animal rights. I’m sure the miners don’t wish to harm any canaries, but they sure wouldn’t enter the mine without one!

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