Did dynamite residue poison me?
January 1, 2009 12:28 PM   Subscribe

My old water well was "dug" with dynamite. I drank the water for years. Did the dynamite residue harm my health? A voice on the radio implied it might have. Google is un-helpful so far. I'd appreciate facts rather than speculation.
posted by Hobgoblin to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You can find people who will tell you that any particular thing is bad for your health.

Traditional dynamite, as invented by Alfred Nobel, is a mixture of nitroglycerin and diatomaceous earth. I don't see anything there that would produce toxic combustion products.

But for the last few decades that formulation has been replaced by ANFO, which is cheaper, safer to manufacture, safer to store and use, and has even more explosive yield. These days when people talk about "dynamite" they're really talking about ANFO.

Factory-prepared ANFO combusts nearly completely, yielding water, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen gas.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:07 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just a bit more: if the ANFO is produced with slightly more fuel oil than necessary, then combustion isn't complete and it will produce at least some nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide.

But those aren't going to stick around underground for years. And in water they're unstable anyway.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:17 PM on January 1, 2009

How long ago was the well dug? And how much water had been extracted from it between the time it was dug and the time you had your first glassful?
posted by Solomon at 1:45 PM on January 1, 2009

Response by poster: The well was dug approximately 40 years ago. I began drinking from it about 6 years later. Not much water had been used by humans, as a handpump was the only withdrawal mechanism, the person who dug it and used it was only there seasonally. However, in wet weather, the water floweth in and the water floweth out. In the very driest of seasons, the water runneth out (as in dries up). so, I would say that by the time I came along, the well had been flushed out several times. Thanks for the thoughtful replies so far.
posted by Hobgoblin at 2:19 PM on January 1, 2009

It may not be dynamite, but rather TNT, which actually is poisonous. TNT replaced dynamite at some point, but I'm not sure when.

However, the residues from either are long gone. The main concern with TNT in groundwater is when it's buried in its unexploded form, like at a military testing range or somesuch.

If you're really concerned, send the water off for analysis. There might not be explosive residue, but there's plenty of other things that could be in there that you'd want to know about.
posted by electroboy at 2:35 PM on January 1, 2009

I don't think TNT was ever in use for that kind of thing. TNT is considered a military explosive. And there really wasn't any need for it in civilian use; dynamite or ANFO are plenty good enough.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:59 PM on January 1, 2009

Dynamite was phased out because it was difficult to manufacture and became unstable if the nitro crystallized out. Not sure exactly when, but it's definitely not used anymore.

Are you sure dynamite was used to excavate? The only reason I can see to use explosives is if you couldn't get a standard drill rig onsite.
posted by electroboy at 4:21 PM on January 1, 2009

Regarding TNT, I'm wrong. Apparently it is in civilian use.

(The dynamite-to-ANFO phaseover took a while, worldwide. Mostly it happened in the 1950's in the US but it was only in the 1980's in South Africa.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:25 PM on January 1, 2009

I just looked something up I was curious about. Nitrogen oxides mixed with water form nitrous and nitric acids. Carbon monoxide mixed with water becomes formic acid. All of them would interact with and replace any carbonate or hydroxide present in the soil or rock, and would be neutralized.

There's no way they'd hang around for years and contaminate the water.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:59 PM on January 1, 2009

Response by poster: electroboy, Not everyone thinks as you do. Here in NH 45 years ago anyone could walk in to New England Explosives and buy dynamite. No Homeland Security - only Homemade Security back then. And lots of folks think that a dug well can be superior to a drilled well. My well was probably dug for under $100.00, which was also a consideration. It was blasted, I am certain. When I moved in, 13 sticks of dynamite were locked in the outhouse. The gel had leaked out and covered the bottom of the pan. I did not know then that that is when it can be particularly touchy. Red sticks, just like in the movies.
posted by Hobgoblin at 6:26 PM on January 1, 2009

Yeah, get the well water tested, for your own peace of mind as well as your health. Who knows what other compounds or microbes could be in it too.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:15 PM on January 1, 2009

Best answer: Risk Management for Hazardous Chemicals:

Ethylene glycol dinitrate may enter the environment through [various means].... Acute (short-term) effects may include the death of animals, birds, or fish and death or low growth rate in plants. Acute effects are seen 2 to 4 days after [exposure]....

Chronic (long-term) toxic effects may include shortened life span, reproductive problems, lower fertility, and changes in appearance or behavior in exposed animals. These effects can be seen long after first exposure.... Insufficient data are available to evaluate or predict the long-term effects of ethylene glycol dinitrate exposure to aquatic life, plants, birds, or land animals.

Ethylene glycol dinitrate is insoluble in water. Concentrations of less than 1 milligram will not mix with a liter of water.

Ethylene glycol dinitrate is highly persistent in water, with a half-life greater than 200 days....

Some substances increase in concentration, or bioaccumulate, in living organisms as they ... drink contaminated water.... These chemicals can become concentrated in the tissues and internal organs of animals as well as humans....

Nitroglycerine is not given a separate entry in the book.

Personally, I would call up your county extension officer and maybe your county's public health officer responsible for wells and see what they think. I believe that the contaminants would either have burned up in the explosion or broken down over time and been rendered into inert byproducts. I do live in farm country and I've never heard of this type of contamination, whereas wells are tested regularly for a standard list of toxins and what I do hear about tends to be heavy metals or animal waste.
posted by dhartung at 9:03 PM on January 1, 2009

And lots of folks think that a dug well can be superior to a drilled well.

The only real benefit of a dug well is that it can be done with minimal specialized equipment, i.e. blasting. Drilled wells are superior in just about every way, since they go deeper, less susceptible to surface contamination and they're a lot safer to build. The only drawback is that you have to pay someone to drill it. If you have a pipe in the ground, it's a drilled well. If it's a big stone or concrete manhole type thing, it's a dug well.
posted by electroboy at 8:31 AM on January 2, 2009

Response by poster: Mathowie's automated email asks me to mark this question "resolved" if I feel that it has been answered. I don't, mostly because it all happened so long ago. I haven't used this water for drinking for 20 years, so it is not a current problem. If I did poison myself a generation ago, well, the damage is done. If these answers help another researcher, that's great, but my question is probably unanswerable for me. That's fine. I'm not worried. And ELECTROBOY, don't ever "answer" another question of mine. Your assumtions and prejudices are unhelpful.
posted by Hobgoblin at 6:56 AM on February 1, 2009

You're right. I hate dug wells. They're lazy and steal things.

I'll also note that you didn't offer any reason why dug wells are better. I'm guessing it's the little bucket you get to crank up and down. So picturesque!
posted by electroboy at 10:09 AM on February 1, 2009

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