Digging Up Trouble

By Scott LaFee

April 21, 2010 5 min read

A different kind of mine disaster may be in the offing as researchers watch and worry about the human and environmental consequences of mining antimony, an element whose effects in nature and upon the human body are largely unknown.

"Antimony is an emerging contaminant," said Faye Liu, a researcher at Indiana University in Bloomington. "People have not paid enough attention to it."

In small quantities, antimony is used in a wide variety of applications, from electronics, paints and metal alloys to treating diseases like leishmaniasis. The problem is that no one has yet determined antimony's toxicity levels because the element is usually found in low parts-per-billion concentrations in nature.

The situation is different, however, at the Xikuangshan antimony mine in China, where the element is excavated from huge, open pits where ore tailings are directly exposed to open air and water sources. Liu and colleagues found antimony concentrations in local water supplies were 11 parts per million or 1,000 times greater than in uncontaminated water.

Scientists have begun looking closer at the environmental and health effects surrounding Xikuangshan, hoping to develop better knowledge and guidelines for other places where antimony pollution may be a looming issue, such as factories and military bases.


A volcano beneath the Mediterranean Sea could collapse at any time, causing a tsunami to swamp southern Italy, say researchers. The problem is that no one knows when it will happen. Enzo Boschi of the National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome used remote sensing to study the Marsili seamount. Boschi found that the flanks of the seamount are partly comprised of unstable rock that is likely weakening from the hot fluids within. A local earthquake or eruption within Marsili would be enough to cause collapse of these flanks — and probable disaster.


Fiddler crabs are one of only a few species known to form defense coalitions against common enemies. When a strange crab enters the home turf of burrowed crab-neighbors, the settled crabs will sometimes combine forces to better repel the invader. These alliances are strategic, and most often occur when one established crab is bigger than both the intruder and the neighbor, which means there's a good chance of winning.

"The best explanation is better the devil you know," Australian researcher Michael Jennions told New Scientist magazine. Once crabs get to know their neighbors and have worked out borders and relationships, they don't want to continually refight those battles.


"Touch screens have taken away the sense of touch."

— Marcus Rosenthal, whose company Artificial Muscle in Sunnyvale is developing a new kind of touch screen that pushes back on user's fingers, replicating the feel of a typewriter keyboard


0.08 — Width, in nanometers, of the world's smallest supercomputer, created at Ohio University. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Bacteria generally have a diameter of 300 to 5,000 nanometers.

Source: New Scientist


Suspicious of the food he was being served at his boardinghouse, Hungarian chemist and future Nobel laureate George de Hevesy (he co-discovered the element hafnium) conducted a simple experiment at dinner one evening. While his landlady's attentions were diverted elsewhere, he sprinkled a piece of fatty meat at the side of his plate with a microscopic amount of a radioactive material.

The next day, when "meat hash" was served for dinner, Hevesy passed a Geiger counter over his plate. The counter clicked madly, confirming de Hevesy's suspicions. He promptly left the table and found another place to live.


The element antimony, widely used in manufacturing, but whose effects upon human health and the environment are largely unknown. (See related item: Digging up trouble.)

To find out more about Scott LaFee and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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