Ask A Scientist

How do earthquakes start? Where do they form? How do they end?

Asked by: Julia O’Connor
School: St. James Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Cora Walter
Hobbies/Interests: Ballet, ice-skating
Career Interest: A college art professor

Answer from Francis Wu

Professor of geophysics, Binghamton University

Is is not easy for indiviual homowners and residents to test and verify contamination of their homes from nearby toxic spills. That is because it can be challenging to analyze and accurately verify small amounts of any toxic chemical in the natural environment.

A toxic chemical typically exerts an adverse health effect at a low concentration. Because only a small amount of a toxic chemical needs to exist to be considered dangerous, detecting and quantifying such low levels of chemicals in an accurate manner is presently difficult. Novel research in the area of “Environmental Sensors” is being conducted by many individuals to overcome some of these analytical challenges. However, such technologies require further modification before they can be used to accurately measure trace amounts of toxic chemicals in the natural environment.

Local water companies routinely test the water that they supply residents for a suite of water quality parameters such as: alkalinity, dissolved oxygen, hardness, total dissolved solids, and volatile organic contaminants. If a resident is concerned about their local water quality with respect to these parameters, they can contact their water company and ask for a copy of a report for a well in their regional area. Keep in mind however, that these water quality parameters may not offer much information about toxic spills in the same geographical area.

One important thing to remember is that quite often with relatively little expense, individuals can minimize the risk of exposure from toxic chemicals to themselves. For example, if someone is concerned about the drinking water in their house being contaminated, for a reasonable price, they can install a filter onto their drinking water tap. There are also many other types of portable drinking water filtering pitchers/dispensers. While such devices will not completely eliminate contamination, it will vastly improve the quality of water being consumed.

Another potential pathway of exposure also resulting from contaminated water occurs via inhaling potentially contaminated water vapor during showering. Again, a person can minimize this risk by simply reducing the amount of time they spend showering.

Similarly, if a resident is concerned about inhaling toxic fumes from a regional spill which may have inadvertently entered their dwelling, they can minimize their personal exposure by providing adequate ventilation in their homes; doing so would minimize the buildup of these fumes within the home.

Research area: Seismology and tectonophysics Ph.D. school: California Institute of Technology Family: Wife and daughter Interests/hobbies: : Listening to music listening, reading, linux and international cuisine (I know a good frutti di mare or palak paneer when I taste one) Web page

Last Updated: 3/1/17