A troubling report has recently appeared. It shows that some fishes in SE Idaho waters are showing signs of unprecedented developmental defects, like producing two heads. Here's a light-hearted report on this pesky situation...
So what is selenium, anyway, and is it dangerous?
Selenium is an element in the same family as oxygen. Doesn't sound too dangerous, does it! Well, the truth be known, oxygen is actually a highly reactive, toxic element. It readily accepts or gives away electrons, meaning it can and will react with just about anything. So why doesn't oxygen kill us? The short answer is that it is carefully chaperoned by an oxygen carrier (think hemoglobin) from the time it enters our bodies until it reaches its destination at the mitochondria of our cells. OK, so what!?
If you think back to your HS biology class (yeah, that really boring one you never thought you'd need to ever remember anything from), well, today's the day to remember.
The mitochondria is where the cells of our bodies make a molecule called ATP (that's what our cells use for energy). In order to make ATP though, we need an atom that is hungry enough for electrons and chemically reactive enough that it can steal electrons away from the mitochondria. That's what oxygen does...not to worry, once it picks up the extra electrons it bonds with a couple of hydrogen ions (aka protons) and forms water.
Have you heard of oxygen free radicals? They are bad, right? That's because these are oxygen atoms that are not chaperoned, and they can and will react with just about anything. All right, and so.....
...and so, Selenium is in the same chemical family as oxygen, but normally its so rare in the environment that our bodies have not developed self-defense mechanisms against high concentrations of the stuff, and in fact we need it in trace (very tiny) amounts in order to be healthy. But, when selenium is present in the environment in high enough concentrations, it is toxic. How does it get inside our bodies? We drink or eat material that has high concentrations of it in it. It can then can cause all kinds of problems, like GI-tract problems, hair loss, neurological damage, and even death.
By the way, if you look back at the table above, you'll see that selenium's neighbor to its left is Arsenic (ew!), and to it's right is Bromine (an element that can break down ozone in the stratosphere).
The JR Simplot Company runs the Smoky Canyon Phosphorus mine in SE Idaho. It is in Caribou County, about 24 miles east of Soda Springs, ID, and 38 miles north of Bear Lake.
The image below (courtesy of Google Earth) shows the mining site. It is an open pit strip mining operation. The entire mining complex is about 5 miles long on a north-south axis.
The image below is a closer view of the north end of the mining complex, clearly showing the strip mining operation.
The link below will take you to a website developed by JR Simplot that gives a brief description of the mining operation, and contends that it is not a health risk to humans or other forms or life.
If you read through the information at the site you will see that even though this site has not (yet) been designated as a "Superfund" cleanup site by the Federal Government, the Simplot corporation itself has proactively taken steps to care for such a site. So, my question is this. If this mine is not hazardous, why is Simplot treating it like it is? I mean, Simplot has posted multi-million dollar bonds to address possible issues of release of toxic materials, like selenium, and to take care of post-mining reclamation costs. While I'm glad to see that they are planning to reclaim the land when they are done, it is clear that they recognize at least the potential for toxic material release.
I do take issue with one of the Q&A points at that web site. This is a quote:
"Yes, it can be. The EPA acceptable level for selenium is...?..., and the levels in the water downstream of the mine are...?...'
Going on to say that it is an essential nutrient makes it sound like if a little selenium is good for you, then more must be better! Yikes!
They do at least admit that selenium levels are elevated, so you have to give them that!
WHEN I TRIED TO VISIT THE SITE WHERE YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO SEE THE RESULTS OF THEIR REPORT - THE LINK IS NOT ACTIVE. EH!? WHAT'S UP WITH THAT?
The two-headed fish story attained national news/parody status earlier this year, but there is some question about whether selenium actually caused the two-headed fish displayed.
Whether it did or it didn't, the fact remains that selenium levels in, around, and downstream of the mine are well in excess of all EPA clean water limits. When JR Simplot became aware of this their alleged action was not to take steps to lower selenium levels, but instead they petitioned the EPA to raise the legal selenium limit, at least locally. Sigh.
The two stories below demonstrate this apparent mix-up, but it's interesting that no one is really contending that selenium at high concentrations is not toxic.
I have to say that as an Idahoan, this makes me sad.
Care for a nice tall glass of clear Idaho mountain water? Anyone? Anyone?