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One-Eyed Frogs? Fuel In Russian Rocket About to Crash In the Arctic Is ‘Nasty'

Environmentalists are freaking out.
June 1, 2016, 5:49pm
A harp seal, which is found in Baffin Bay. Image: Virginia State Parks

On Saturday, part of a Cold War-era Russian rocket carrying fuel made with the dangerous chemical hydrazine will crash into the biodiverse Arctic waters of Baffin Bay.

The rocket was launched under Russia's for-profit Rokot satellite launching program, which began in the 1990s. Russia has alerted international aviation authorities that a stage of the rocket carrying the fuel will crash in Arctic waters, the Canadian Press reported.

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Hydrazine is so toxic that technicians have to handle the stuff with special astronaut-like Hazmat suits, and at least one company in the UK is developing new rockets that aren't powered by the chemical. The European Chemicals Agency deemed hydrazine to be a "substance of very high concern" in 2011 due to its potentially cancer-causing properties.

The region where the rocket is slated to crash is packed full of Arctic creatures including narwhals and beluga whales, as well as dolphins and seals. Environmental activists are naturally up in arms about the rocket crash and the potential for hydrazine to harm these critters, but what will the impact of the crash be, scientifically speaking?

"It's pretty nasty stuff," said Gerald Greenhouse, a lecturer on cell biology at Harvard Medical School who completed studies on the effects of hydrazine on frog embryos in the mid-1970s.

"There were problems with the development of the eyes—instead of two eyes they had one"

At the time, Greenhouse introduced small amounts of hydrazine into an aquarium to analyze the effects on frog embryos. It wasn't pretty.

"The effects tended to be things having to do with neural development and nerve cell development," Greenhouse said. "There were problems with the development of the eyes—instead of two eyes they had one."

Environment and Climate Change Canada completed an analysis of the environmental impact of hydrazine in 2011 and found that there was little risk of bioaccumulation—when toxins build up in animal tissue and are are passed onto the humans or other animals that eat it. This conclusion was based on studies that suggested the chemical is metabolized and excreted very well by dogs and rats, and one study that showed guppies exposed to hydrazine had low concentrations in their bodies.

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However, "there is significant empirical evidence to suggest that hydrazine is harmful to aquatic organisms at low concentrations," the report states. Basically, there may not be many long-term effects, but it could still seriously fuck up some animals if it's present in high enough concentrations.

According to Global Affairs, the government agency handling media requests related to the rocket crash, there's nothing to worry about, however.

"The rockets' fuel is expected to fully burn up upon re-entry," Global Affairs spokesperson Austin Jean wrote Motherboard in an email. "We therefore expect minimal environmental risks following re-entry."

And this may be the sticking point: a single rocket stage crash with an unknown amount of unused hydrazine on board (and possibly none) may have only a small effect on the wildlife or ecosystem.

"If we're talking about one crash, it will probably dissolve away in a short amount of time," said Greenhouse. "I'd be more worried if you were at a plant that was making the stuff, or you were in a place where they were continually releasing it."

The 2011 report, which cites Greenhouse's research, also notes that the most concerning cases of hydrazine contamination are among plants that consistently release the chemical into the environment, leading to chronic exposure in wildlife.

All in all, there may not be much to worry about for humans or animals now and in the future—but, still, nobody likes the idea of even a few cute little seals being born cyclops thanks to some Soviet-era technology. UPDATE: An earlier version of this article stated that it would be updated with comment from Environment and Climate Change Canada. Our request was moved to Global Affairs Canada, and this article has been updated with their response.