The biology of being oily. Something old and something new.

      Relax.  This is not another story of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  This is even more up close and personal—it’s the daily oil spill on your skin. 

      It’s the middle of the New York summer.  You sweat profusely most of the time.  Worse, your natural skin oils just oozes out of control like the Deepwater Horizon pipeline to give you that uncomfortable, shiny, unhealthy look.   Ladies, makeup just won’t hold long enough.  You’re back again to the powder room to fix the ‘paint job.’  Guys, especially those who like their heads closely shaved as if they just came out of army boot camp or just out of jail, oils just drips down your face and make your head shine like a brand new bowling ball.  If you are acne prone, then life gets even more miserable.  And it’s all because of that tiny gland, called the sebaceous gland, alongside your hair follicle that spews out natural oils, called sebum.  In the US, oily skin is a $1.2 billion dollar over-the-counter industry and about $ 2.5 billion for prescription drugs, if you have bad acne.  Part of the success of that industry is because of people like you and me, the unlucky majority of really oily folks.

      This topic is quite interesting for me for two reasons.  First, I did spend a decade and a half in the olden days doing dermatology research, especially on sebaceous glands and hair.  Second, just through serendipity, I have the answer to our oily problem.  Now that I got your attention, let me tell you a little about why you need oil and how it happens to mess up your life too (Yes, sounds like the same argument for crude oil).

Cross-section of the skin showing the sebaceous gland and hair

      There is an average of 100,000 hairs on your scalp, including fine barely visible hair and thick ones.  Then there are those non-pigmented, fine hairs on your face, arms, legs and back.  You are born with the same number of hair until you die, barring any major personal catastrophe like setting your hair on fire.   In some men and women, the hair gets thinner and less pigmented giving that balding look if one is predisposed to baldness or the thinning look that comes with age.  And, with each hair is your life time supply of oil from the sebaceous gland right next to it.  Besides that we have the much larger apocrine sweat glands in our armpits, around the nipples and the genital area that produces more sweat.  Initially odorless, the apocrine secretions become odorous depending on the mix of microorganisms present on your skin.

      Some of us have bigger glands than others; those unlucky few have overactive ones.  The sebaceous duct opens to the pores that deliver the oil outside of the skin.  It oftentimes gets clogged with oil and dead epidermal cells and then you get blackheads or whiteheads.  For many, this is already bad enough.  But, for the 85% of teenagers and the minority of young adults in this country, it can transform into full blown acne when the trapped oils cause inflammation because the acne bacteria, Proprionibacterium  acnes, starts proliferating using oil as its food source (Remarkably sounding like the oil eating marine bacteria in the Gulf) and converting the oil into irritants.  Just think of it as fresh butter off the grocery store turning rancid after you leave it out in the counter for a while.  By then you will be running to the corner drugstore to get some over the counter medication or go online for the super high tech de-plugging, skin rejuvenating, over-priced products shown on TV.

      Both men and women get acne.  The glands respond to the male hormone, testosterone, which the sebaceous cells convert to dihyrotestosterone to stimulate more oil production.  The sebaceous cells at the base of the gland starts filling up with oil.  It gets bigger and bigger as it is pushed out towards the center of the gland by new cells dividing and growing behind it.  When totally filled to capacity (sort of like an oil tanker about to run aground), the cell bursts open into the open cavity of the gland and the spilled oil gets pushed up and out of the pores.  Now you have a full blown oil spill and one that you can’t stop by capping the well.  Women produce testosterone too from the adrenal glands, from the ovary or convert estrogen to testosterone at the level of the cell where enzymes convert these precursor hormones to more active ones.   Some of us also have over active enzymes in the skin that convert more than it should or have more protein receptors than bind the hormone, transport it to the nucleus of the cell, stimulating more cells to divide and more oils to form.  This is the biological recipe for your own personal nonstop oil spill.

      You would think that since oils on our skin are such a pain, why it did not shrink throughout evolution as human beings get less and less hairy?  Who needs oil anyway?  Well, your natural oils lubricate your skin, preventing it from dehydrating and the thin coating of oil on your hair keeps it from drying up.  The chemical composition of sebum is so uniquely different from other natural oils in our body.   Why this is so remains a mystery to science, for now.  Certainly there are antimicrobial peptides, such as cathelicidin, beta defensins and histone H4, present in the sebaceous glands that can kill Staphylococcus aureus and P. acnes.  Moreover, acne is a concern probably only in the last 5,000 years, too short of a time span for evolution to allow natural selection for people with smaller glands or none at all.  Or maybe, pimples were sexy before 5,000 years ago.

      But, I think our skin oils have a higher purpose and that is to give our uniquely individual scent.  In non-mammalian primates, such as gerbils, rats and mice for example, sebaceous gland secretions are the means of communicating individual identification and sexual attraction.  Most likely early humans identify each other by their scent.  Perhaps, the sense of smell was more heightened as a means of communication before language was invented.  It still persists in our modern world only in some aboriginal cultures.  In the Desana tribe of the Amazon and the Batek Negrito of the Malay Peninsula, tribal membership is based on similarity of body odor and marriage is allowed only to a person from another tribal group with a different odor.   The Ongee of Andaman Islands, the Bororo of Brazil and the Serer Ndut of Senegal all recognize personal identity by the individual’s smell.  I remember my college Anthropology 101 seeing photographs of aborigines from Papua New Guinea during their ritual of smelling the face, armpits and chest to recognize and welcome visitors from another tribe.  Now, you can’t even dare to try that in the New York subway without getting seriously hurt or ending up in jail.

      As human beings created larger, more complex societies, the value of smell has faded from memory and is retained in social customs without true connection to the sense of smell.  An example is the Indian custom of smelling someone’s head as an affectionate greeting, a ritual dating back to thousands of years and even chronicled in ancient Indian texts as a “the greatest sign of tender love.”   That understanding in today’s society is translated to a more commercial one, looking for the smell that pleases, that creates the urge to buy, that stimulates other senses, and especially that masks other smells.  The sense of commercialism is starkly prominent in the bewildering array of perfumes in the market today. 

      Current research on smell is a sophisticated science using astounding technology that allows one to identify individual chemicals among the thousands that permeate the environment or that comes off the surfaces of plants and foods.  While most research are in the food applications of smell, the more intriguing ones are on the search for that pheromone that attracts the opposite sex, the very basic of human interactions.  The article by Saxton and his colleagues from the University of Liverpool described a steroid called androstadienone presumably from sebaceous/apocrine secretions that contribute to the smell of sweat and saliva that influence how women perceive the attractiveness of a male.  What’s interesting was that the test environment for that study was the process of ‘speed-dating,’ that strange new ritual of the modern era, so we thought,  that I am sure the Desanas, Baroros, the Ongees will find curiously familiar.

      Since we don’t need so much oil in our modern world, how do we get rid of it and acne along with it?  That has been a seemingly endless chase for solutions since the ancient Greeks and Egyptians.  Today’s armamentarium includes remedies, such as sulfur, that are as old as the first written language.  To cover all of these will bore you to death and, if you are already suffering from acne, you already know all about these anyway:     

Intra-lesional steroid,  benzoyl peroxide, antibiotics, retinoids, antiseborrheic medications, salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acid, azelaic acid, nicotinamide, kera-tolytic soaps, combined estrogen/progestogen contraceptives,  antiandrogens, topical retinoids such as (Retin-A), adapalene (Differin), and tazarotene (Tazorac), (marketed as Roaccutane, Accutane, Amnesteem, Sotret, Claravis, Clarus), nNicotinamide, (vitamin B3), Naproxen or ibuprofen for their anti-inflammatory effects, dermabrasion,  phototherapy, deep penetrating light therapy, photodynamic therapy, surgical lancing, laser treatment, aloe vera, neem, turmeric, papaya, ananthamoola, azelaic acid (brand names Azelex, Finevin and Skinoren), heat, pantothenic acid, tea tree oil, zinc, tetracyclines, low glycemic index diet..…just to name a few.

Some are  just methods, others are purely synthetic, some are derivatives from petroleum and the rest are natural extracts of plants.  What is disconcerting these days is that what we thought was safe yesterday, is the new toxins of today.  Pregnant women particularly are so concerned when using cosmetic products these days.

The idea

      All these treatments are meant to shrink the sebaceous gland, kill the bacteria, reduce the inflammation or get rid of the oil.  The last one, getting rid of the oil, received the least serious interest since you can’t make much money by simply selling blotting paper or selling soap to disperse the oil (dispersants in the Gulf oil spill are made from soap ingredients by the way).  The commercial solution is always something that either sounds like a drug or is a drug or some esoteric formulation that combines all of these anti-acne effects for $80 bucks an ounce.

      Why not just get rid of the oil?  Seems easiest to do and least likely to involve anything that will have serious side effects.  Just like skimming the oil off the ocean surface after the BP oil spill.  It gets rid of the unsightly mess, keep the wildlife from being seriously damaged and not worry about the oil washing to the shore.  Why not do the same for your face?

Ifrenel clay powder and single use daily pack

      The idea is not unique, even for us.  We’ve thought about it for many years, but never so seriously until serendipity took over (For the etymologically challenged, the word came from the name, serendip, given by Indian sailors thousands of years ago to the island we call now as Sri Lanka because they found it purely by chanceIn those days, mariners rarely venture too far out of sight of land because they thought the  world was flat and the ship falls off beyond the horizon—unless of course when  storm blew you off course and land in Serendip by accident).  Biological ideas don’t come often.  Eureka moments are far between the ‘hurry up and wait’ mode of science.  More often it comes through an unrelated event or a side observation.  In this case, we were busy trying to develop a formulation for our barnacle, insect and shark repellent projects, looking at ways to improve the effect of this nontoxic, edible repellent.  At the time we were working with a range of materials including clay.  Also at the same time, it was a hot humid summer day, oil oozing out of my face.  I thought wistfully that maybe I should try some of these clays on myself as I have never liked the thought of using blotting paper (I did try blotting paper before just to be fair) and washing with soap just moves oil around. 

Decline in the perception of oiliness in women after single application of Ifrenel clay

      I rubbed this new clay composition on my skin, then washed it off quickly because guys usually don’t want anything on that makes them look like a girl—no offense.  Something unique happened.  The oil went away with the clay, totally absorbed and washed off.  And something else, my skin was softer, tighter, no shine and most of all, remarkably smoother—for almost the whole day!  I do have my sensitive moments too and I had been around skin care companies long enough to know that we got something really amazing.

      We eventually gave the clay a new name, Ifrenel Clay TechnologyTM, just to make it sound sexier (and French), but the composition is a proprietary mixture of clay materials found in nature.  These clays are rare, not something you will find just anywhere, except from a few mine deposits in the United States.    When one applies it to the skin only once, Ifrenel keeps the oil away for over 24 hours.  When tested on women volunteers who rated their “oil spill” from 1 to 5, with 5 being your equivalent of the Deepwater Horizon scale, the feeling of being oily went away in 10 minutes and lasted for the next 24 hours, at least.   My daughters started using Ifrenel two years ago instead of buying those brand items off  TV ads (saved me a lot of bucks). 

Reduction of acne in women after daily use of Ifrenel

      Then something else happened.  Acne went away and rarely come back, unless they forget using it.  So, off we go running another clinical trial and demonstrating that one can actually clear acne in a week.  The inflammation stopped within two days.  That’s because the acne bacteria don’t have anything to feed on and maybe taken away with the clay too.  Cystic acne can be painful to the touch, just ask anyone who has it. No longer after only two days of a single use each day because the acne bacteria is not there to convert oil into irritants.  But remember, Ifrenel is not a cure.  It just takes away your oil spill.  Acne will come back after a week if you stop clearing your oil away.

      This was a pleasant distraction from our usual marine science projects and certainly far from our malaria projects too.  Off we went to file patents for this, then launched a new company based on the technology, called Ifrenel (from I feel fresh and ‘naturele’).  It will be a hard fight to get it in the store shelves, but we will manage because we aree so confident that it works after tests in over a thousand women.  For men, you can apply it on your face and your shiny ‘bowling ball’ will have that matted, healthy look very quickly, without anyone knowing about it.

      Is this so unique just because I stumbled on it?  Without sounding like an infomercial, IfrenelTM (and its companion product called ClaynTM for just those with the oily problem without acne) is all natural clay.  It works by applying the powder on your skin when it’s dry, just before you wash it, by rubbing with your fingers (see video link below).  This also gives you that microdermabrasion workout that removes dead skin and residual cosmetic chemicals off your face.  When you wash it away, the oil goes with the clay-water mix.  Can’t apply when you skin is wet; the Ifrenel clay will absorb water and lessen the effect.  Not an easy thing to do because we are all conditioned to the soap and water routine.  This is better for you than soap so get used to it quick!  Without oil, your P acnes bacteria don’t grow, your pimples and blackhead disappear and your skin is smooth as silk all day.  No kidding.  And, your make up stays on much longer, saves you money in the long run and spare the wear and tear on your shoes going back and forth the powder room.  There are no emollients, no fancy petroleum chemicals and no silicone to make it smooth.  It’s just your fingers, your skin and Ifrenel clay.

       And how about odor?  It does even more remarkable things that I will tell you one day soon.  I might get to like dermatology research again after all these years.

      Now that this oil spill problem is solved, time to get back to more marine sciences.  Next time I will tell you about shark repellents.  Not having one at the wrong time can really mess up your day permanently.

Jonathan R. Matias

New York, NY

Poseidon Sciences Group

About Ifrenel

The science of Ifrenel      (how to use the product; must see if you want to get best benefit)

On the science of smell

Saxton TK, Lyndon A, Little AC, Roberts SC. 2008 Evidence that androstadienone, a putative human chemosignal, modulates women’s attributions of men’s attractiveness.  Hormones and Behavior. 54(5):597-601.

This Fracking problem: Chasing the solution to this controversial mining issue

      Fracking ! Sounds like a curse word, and for some people along the Marcellus Shale regions between New York and West Virginia, it already is.  Or, it may sound something like an illegal activity folks engage in somewhere in a dark back alley.  And, that also reminds me of the word “fragging” used by soldiers usually against their own senior officers, often involving a fragmentation grenade without the pin.  English is such a flexible language!

      Yesterday, there was a well attended public hearing in Pennsylvania sponsored by the EPA on the use of fracking to release natural gas from shale deposits underneath the earth’s surface.  It was a heated “debate.”  One side arguing how dangerous it is to their local environment while the industry is saying that it has been proven safe for decades.  July 22 was certainly a one ‘fracking’ day for everyone there.  It is also uncanny that it was the same day we announced a new project to develop an alternative idea to reduce the environmental impact of fracking.  Seriously, I did not even know about the public forum until I read it in Tom Zeller’s blog entry in the NY Times.  It was just serendipity.

       For those who are not familiar with the ‘fracking” business, let me give you a quick run down.

Schematic representation of the hydraulic fracturing operation

      The Marcellus Shale Formation, a geologic feature located between New York State and West Virginia, holds an estimated 262 trillion cubic feet of extractable natural gas reserves.  Although this resource has been known for a century, the Marcellus shale deposit became important in the last two decades because of the depletion of other easily accessible gas reserves, the increasing price of oil and the development of the hydraulic fracturing technology by Halliburton that made it feasible to extract natural gas.  Hydraulic fracturing or fracking for short is a process wherein fluid containing sand is pushed at high pressure through a well bore deep into the shale formation to create man-made fractures.  The hydraulic fracturing process involves injection of proppants, typically sand or ceramic beads that are lodged inside the shale to keep the fracture open. The fractured shale allows free flow of natural gas and oil into the pipeline that brings them to the surface for collection.  Over a million wells have been drilled in the Marcellus shale through hydraulic fracturing.


Bacteria that cause clogging in fracturing wells

Blame it on the bugs.    Anaerobic iron and sulfate degrading bacteria rapidly proliferate in the fracturing fluids, causing corrosion of the pipes and clogging of the proppants.  Inevitably biocides had to be included in the fracturing fluid to inhibit bacterial growth to keep the gas flowing.  However, in recent years, there has been a tremendous public concern about the environmental impact associated with hydraulic fracturing and, in particular, the possible contamination of the aquifer and nearby streams by biocides and other chemicals present in the fracturing fluid.  This triggered the frantic search for more environmentally benign options to keep anaerobic organisms from proliferating, despite the insistence of the oil industry that the technology is safe.  Considering the economic and strategic value of extracting US oil-gas reserves, an alternative technology needs to be developed as soon as possible to solve this environmental concern.  People are wary of corporations proclaiming safety and it is better for companies to solve the problem than fighting the public perception of another corporate-led environmental catastrophe. 

      Poseidon’s position on this matter?  I am neither pro nor con to fracking.  I think fracking is essential to our country’s energy independence and the continued employment of a whole lot of people during these dire economic times; the industry estimates 280,000 are employed or will be employed.  But, I also think the industry must allay the legitimate fears of the public quickly by solving the issue and finding an alternative option to improve the system.  I am sure you are thinking that sitting on the fence on this fracking problem is not a healthy thing to do.  I neither relish the ire of the Pennsylvanians nor like being at the very bottom of the list in an oil industry event (not that I have ever been on any invitation list; not yet anyway).

      What to do then?  At the risk of stopping all natural gas extraction and exploration, it is imperative that a solution be developed soon to prevent bacterial overgrowth in fracturing wells.  Because it takes only a small amount of bacteria to contaminate the well, introduction of bacteria-free fluids or other technologies proposed to date have had marginal impact on the overall problem.  A biocidal approach is still the best method.  We still need to get those Gallionella and Desulfovibrio bacteria from clogging the wells and corroding the pipes.  However, the biocidal material should be environmentally friendly and must not freely diffuse away from the bore hole.  This is where the daunting challenges lie.

      Technological advances often times are not at the same pace with the response necessary to negate environmental issues that result from catastrophic failure or unforeseen damage. The case in point is the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  For this reason Poseidon has embarked on an ambitious program, called the Nereus Project, to develop technologies that help ameliorate environmental problems associated with technological advances.  While developing technologies for oil spill cleanup, the Nereus Project has also been looking at alternative options that would prevent biocidal actives from leaching out to the environment from fracking fluids.

     This fracking issue is a hot topic.  Tempers are flared, businesses are at stake, livelihoods are threatened and catastrophes, both real and imagined, are all in the now time frame.  New technology development takes time and tons of money.  But, scientific advances in other fields might be applied here.  It is just a matter of looking and selecting the right ones that are available.  This time we got lucky.

Ceramic proppant coated with selenium

      On July 21, 2010, Poseidon Sciences and Selenium, Ltd. entered into a strategic partnership to develop coatings containing covalently bound selenium [Se].  Why Se and not silver or copper?  Only Se can be permanently attached to a surface and yet continue to be biologically active.  Se is approved by the FDA as a nutritional supplement as an essential nutrient and it also possesses anti-bacterial properties through the release of reactive oxygen species, such as hydrogen peroxide.  Upon contact with Se-treated surface, the reactive oxygen released by Se kills the bacteria on contact, thereby preventing biofilm formation and clogging. This killing effect is short range and does not extend far from the coated surface.  A “green technology,” Selenium’s SeLECT™ technology was originally developed within the Texas Tech University [TTU] System by Dr. Ted Reid and Dr. Julian Spallholz, co-chief scientists of Selenium, Ltd. and TTU professors.  This proprietary technology already achieved FDA 510(k) approval for two separate Class II medical devices and the first coated antimicrobial orthodontic products were introduced to the market in 2009 to prevent dental plaques.  

       When applied to industrial applications, Selenium’s patented SeLECT™ technology is marketed under the name SeGuard™. Because it is bound permanently to the coating and yet remains bioactive, Se does not have to leave the surface to exert its antimicrobial action.  Thus, leaching of SeGuard™ to the environment is prevented.  This technology will find use in the industry as a coating on proppants, sand and other materials used in hydraulic fracturing and as coatings on the iron pipes used in boreholes.  Covalently bound SeGuard™ on the surface of ceramic proppants for an example will be the next generation of non-leaching, environmentally-friendly biocidal technology. 

      If this essential nutrient for the human body is also good enough for our teeth, kills bacteria on contact and doesn’t leave the surface, what else can we ask for?

     Where to go from here?  We are still in the process of proving the concept against iron and sulfur reducing bacteria.  And, we are very optimistic since Se’s antimicrobial effect is universal.  How to make this technology work for the fracking industry will need some serious collaboration with the oil industry players and the EPA.  We do need to act faster than usual to make this happen.

     Since a vital strategic industry, people’s livelihood and the environment are at stake here, only really serious “fracking” people need apply.   

Jonathan R. Matias

Poseidon Sciences Group

New York, NY

Who is Nereus?

In Greek Mythology, Nereus was the son of the Titans—Pontus (the Sea) and Gaia (the Earth).  Always known as the “Old Man of the Sea” for his truthfulness and virtue, Nereus fathered the Nereids or sea nymphs, known for their friendly help to mariners in stormy seas.   

For further reading, please see these links:

This blog entry is derived in part from a July 22, 2010 Poseidon Sciences newsletter:

Regarding the Nereus Project:

On the selenium technology:

On the fracking problem:

Of mice and men: The ecological disasters–Deepwater Horizon and the Dust Bowl

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Go often askew

And leave us nothing but grief and pain,

For promised joy

From the Scots poem by Robert Burns, 1785, To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with a Plough

For almost two decades, there has never been a spill of any sizeable magnitude in the United States.  The Exxon Valdez disaster, a heart-wrenching event way back, passed on as another historical trivia for many our younger generation.  The “Battle of the Rigs,” as I call it, during the ‘safe no-spill years,’ was not as much about oil spills, but about the eye sore that oil rigs represented near shore.  Taking the train a few weeks ago from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara brought that aesthetic concern to a more personal level.  For the very first time I gazed on the miles and miles of oil rigs dotting the Pacific horizon, against the beautiful backdrop of the ocean and the California beaches.  The environmentalists lost that battle against the expedient necessity of supplying our country’s insatiable need for oil.  And, I supposed people just got used to looking at it, the same way that a bunch of oil tankers and cargo vessels anchored out in the horizon barely get a second look.  

The prospect of oil spills was so remote during this “safe period” that the industry magazine Spill Science & Technology Bulletin, edited by my friend, Michael Champ, closed down because of not enough readership.  Also, during this period of ‘tranquility’, much of the research and development associated with oil spill response technology winded down.  Hardly any research was conducted on oil spill in general, let alone in deep ocean, even as companies ramp up to build deeper subsea oil exploration platforms.  There was either so much confidence on newfangled technologies or everyone just became so complacent because the memory of Exxon Valdez was so far into the “ancient period,” as my daughters would call those years before they were born.  (They have also a second, even worse, category called the “dinosaur years”—anytime before 1970).    Given that twenty years is quite ancient for politicians and corporate executives too and without any disasters in recent memory, there was simply no room for the “what if scenarios” of a disaster.

Even as I was writing an article early this year for Asia Pacific Coatings Journal on our subsea testing of marine coatings, oil spill was farthest from my mind.  Ironically, I wrote my concern about the Deepwater Horizon, not of any potential for an oil spill disaster of this magnitude, but on corrosion damage that may arise over the years from fouling by living things in the deep that attach to the pipelines.  The article went into print soon after the Gulf of Mexico (GoM) disaster.   Now, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion yanked America back to a new reality, debunking the myth of the super safe oil platforms.   With this event, comes re-introduction of old terms (tarball, tarmats) and of new ones, to me at least (top kill, dispersants, risers, containment domes)– an array of new terms to learn before those too  pass on as another historical footnote to join the list of earth’s man-made ecological disasters. 

Surprisingly, the BP oil spill does not rank as the worst man-made ecological disasters in the United States, at least for now, although last week it surpassed the volume of the Ixtoc I Oil Spill of 1979 in the GoM.  The all-time winner so far was the ecological disaster called the Dust Bowl of 1930-1940.  Often called the Dirty Thirties, this was the period when over 500,000 Americans were left homeless and when 2.5 million Americans took the painful exodus from their homes, away from the Plains States of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.   Compared to this, the BP oil spill seemed like a walk in the park.  The Dust Bowl was triggered by extensive farming practices in the absence of crop rotations to prevent erosion.  Combined with the start of a decade long drought, the virgin topsoil, deeply plowed by farmers for years, killed the natural grasses that held moisture.  Over 100 million acres of top soil dried up, creating dust storms that blackened the skies all the way to New York City.  Farmlands became unproductive wastelands and herds of cattle died in the fallow field.  Foreclosures followed, then hunger and famine, diseases; untold thousands likely died indirectly.  And, to make matters even worse, the Great Depression of the ‘30s sealed the fate of millions of people within that unfortunate decade.   It was all because of poor knowledge about best farming practices, lax government regulations, and unbridled greed to take as much out of the land as possible, using new mechanized technologies of agriculture.  Sounds like a familiar story, a typical recipe for all the usual disasters waiting to happen.

How did the government come to the rescue?  It was slow at first.  It was just an unbelievable event in America’s Bible Belt, almost an act of God, punishing sinners for a life badly lived.  But, common sense followed.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt started reforms quickly.  The government began buying up cattle in designated emergency counties; those unfit for consumption were destroyed.  Those that were fit went to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation that then supplied the meat to poor families affected by the disaster and by the Great Depression.  The cattle buying program helped scores of cattle owners avoid the foreclosures on their grazing lands.  Roosevelt ordered the planting of 200 million trees, from the Canadian to the Mexican border, as wind breakers and to hold the soil to the ground.  The government made the important step of educating the farmers on new methods of crop rotation, soil conservation, anti-erosion and terracing methods.  And, farmers were paid for every acre they were able to conserve.  This gargantuan effort by the 8th year reduced the dust bowl by 65%, just in time for the new rainfall that followed to lift the region back to productivity.

Just 80 years later, United States’ next biggest man-made disaster unfolded with all the same drama. Like the Dust Bowl, there was little planning for the ‘what if’ scenario in the Deepwater Horizon incident.  There have been a couple of major offshore oil platform spills in the US:  Santa Barbara, California (January, 1969), and the Ixtoc I Oil Spill (June, 1979) in the Gulf of Mexico.  Both were in relatively shallow water.  The Ixtoc I exploratory well disaster (at 160 ft depth) was an oil spill that lasted until March, 1980.  It was recognized as the second largest oil spill and the largest accidental marine spill in history until this 4th July when it was surpassed by Deepwater Horizon.  Robert Campbell’s June 14th chronicle of what went wrong is more accurate and more comprehensive than what I can hope to give here (see link below).  And when one compares this with the Dust Bowl, all the basic ingredients of a disaster were there in Deepwater Horizon, if one looks retrospectively as an armchair observer.  The Internet and the news media are replete with stories of who is to blame, how it happened, who is affected, what is being done to solve the issue, what animals are dying, the people suffering, businesses lost, bad weather, and the usual doom and gloom of any disastrous event in our modern times.

At least the Dust Bowl was an inspiration to two great novels by John Steinbeck, one of which won the Pulitzer Prize and both became great classic movies—Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.  I am sure after the tarballs have gone away the Deepwater Horizon will spawn some novels, although I am doubtful of great movies will come out of it.

What is there left to say?

I asked this question because everything bad has been said and hardly anything good to mention.  In Steinbeck’s novels, the disaster of his time was the backdrop to illustrate the triumph of the human spirit.  Maybe, this is the one remaining item never mentioned in the unrelenting daily coverage of the BP Oil spill drama.  And this also applies to all of the other disasters that have confronted mankind, from floods, earthquakes, landslides, wars, hurricanes and tidal waves.  We always overcome.  Short of a 10-mile wide asteroid hitting earth, mankind will make it.  We always do and we always will because, as a species, we are resilient and inventive. 

But, we have short collective memories; so little appreciation of our past mistakes.  We invent.  We create new ideas.  Our creativity oftentimes goes too far ahead of common sense.  The exhilaration of inventing and breaking new grounds do not always come hand in hand with caution. 

This oil spill will be just a bump in the road of history.  When the oil spill is collected, dispersed and degraded, we will simply write a few novels, a few action and dramatic movies, millions of pages of scientific papers and reams of new regulations.  And, after the fines have been levied, after someone goes to jail, companies get renamed  and new politicians get elected, life moves onward, heading to the next disaster, whose early warnings anticipated by a few and ignored by the many and for which we will again be thoroughly unprepared for.

But that’s us.  That’s how we are as a species.

Despite the hardships and heartaches of this current disaster, we can always have the consolation that we are survivors, that we will overcome and we will continue. And mother Earth re-adjusts.

What’s in a name?

I can’t seem to leave this topic on a banal historical note and on an idealistic, philosophical tone.  It needs something else, a little irreverence perhaps.  So, I began thinking about the name of oil rigs.  Not that I know many, actually I know of only two—Ixtoc I and Deepwater Horizon.  I can never find the origins of Ixtoc.  One website mentions it as a Mayan god protecting the harvest of maize.  In his June 15th blog, Robert Paterson cleverly juxtaposed Ixtoc to come up with Toxic.  Uncanny, but seems appropriate. 

Non-English names, especially Mayan, are definitely more exotic.  It is never easy to create the same a sense of “exoticness” with English words.  But, I thought Deepwater Horizon is sexy.   It seemed to give a deeper, mysteriously hopeful, adventurous meaning.   Deepwater Horizon, I thought would have been great name, not for an ugly oil rig, but for a submarine or an ocean going research vessel or even one of those great sailing ships.  I would have wanted to name my first, if ever, yacht like that, if I thought of it sooner.  Now, Deepwater Horizon just reminds me of another science horror movie made in 1997—Event Horizon—the story of spaceship entering the boundary of spacetime at the edge of a black hole.  In that movie, all the astronauts went mad and started murdering each other.  Seems like a good analogy for the political wrangling within the current drama of the oil spill.

Unfortunately, Deepwater Horizon will go down in history the way of Ixtox I to mean nothing more than another name for a disaster; such a waste of a sexy name.  When I chose my company name, Poseidon Sciences, most people don’t recognize it as the mighty Greek god of the seas (renamed by the Romans as Neptune), but the cruise ship that overturned after getting in the way of a monstrous rogue wave.  The only good thing is that it was only a movie—Poseidon Adventure— and not a true man-made disaster.

Jonathan R. Matias

Poseidon Sciences

New York, July 7, 2010

Robert Campbell, Reuters (June 14 2010) Special Report:  Deep water spills and short attention span.

The poem, To a Mouse, by Robert Burns.