Excerpt #1: The Story of Ten Thousand Mustachioed Men
[A snippet of chapter 8, in Men’s Journal]
Excerpt #2: The Pervasive Menace
[The complete text of the introduction to Rust]
Rust has knocked down bridges, killing dozens. It’s killed at least a handful of people at nuclear power plants, nearly caused reactor meltdowns, and challenged those storing nuclear waste. At the height of the Cold War, it turned our most powerful nukes into duds. Dealing with it has shut down the nation’s largest oil pipeline, bringing about negotiations with OPEC. It’s rendered military jets and ships unfit for service, caused the crash of an F-16 and a Huey, and torn apart the fuselage of a commercial plane midflight. In the 1970s, it was implicated in a number of house fires, when, as copper prices shot up, electricians resorted to aluminum wires. More recently, in the “typhoid Mary of corrosion,” furnaces in Virginia houses failed as a result of Chinese drywall that contained strontium sulfide. They rusted out in two years. One hundred fifty years after massive ten-inch cast iron guns attacked Fort Sumter, rust is counterattacking. Union forces have mobilized with marine-grade epoxy and humidity sensors. Rust slows down container ships before stopping them entirely by aiding in the untimely removal of their propellers. It causes hundreds of explosions in manholes, blows up washing machines, and launches water heaters through the roof, sky high. It clogs the nozzles of fire sprinkler heads: a double whammy for oxidation. It damages fuel tanks and then engines. It seizes up weapons, manhandles mufflers, destroys highway guardrails, and spreads like a cancer in concrete. It’s opened up crypts.
Twenty-five miles northeast of San Francisco, one of the country’s largest rust headaches bobs at anchor in Suisun Bay, and puts Syzygy to shame. Fittingly, the National Defense Reserve Fleet belongs to the US Department of Transportation, an agency that nearly plays God in its attempt to placate the needs of man and machine. Scores of people inspect on a daily basis as many old merchant ships that, in earlier extralegal times, would have been scuttled offshore. Now, the ships are too fragile to be hauled out and repainted, and not worth towing to Texas to be scrapped. Lacking other options, to Texas they’ve gone. Confounding matters, the US Coast Guard insisted in 2006 that the hulls of the ships be cleaned of invasive mussels before being moved, while the California Water Quality Control Board demanded that the bay not be polluted during said cleaning, and threatened to fine the Maritime Administration $25,000 a day until it came up with a plan. Environmental groups sued, demanding studies. While ten biologists, ecologists, toxicologists, statisticians, modelers, and mapping experts collected clams and mussels and took hundreds of sediment samples, the ships went on rusting. Big surprise: they contaminated the bay. At least twenty-one tons of lead, zinc, barium, copper, and other toxic metals have fallen off of the ships. What to do about the Reserve Fleet conundrum is such a touchy question that Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has a position on every environmental issue in California, officially has no position on the matter.
On the other coast, two dozen flip-flop-wearing employees of the US Naval Research Lab fill their time studying corrosion-resisting paints under palm trees at Naval Air Station Key West. Long before the place was an air station, in 1883, the Naval Advisory Board tested anticorrosive concoctions there, because rust was plaguing the navy. Today’s paints self-heal, or can be applied underwater, or change color when exposed to rust—and still, rust plagues the navy. Rust, in fact, poses the number one threat to the most powerful navy on earth. By many measures, and according to many admirals (who sound as if they’re employed by the DOT), the most powerful navy on earth is losing the fight. The name of one of the department’s annual maintenance conferences: Mega Rust. The motto of that Florida lab: “In rust we trust.”
As with boats, they say a lot of things about cars. About one brand of American car, they used to say this: “On a quiet night you can hear a Ford rust.” In Ohio, since rust used to lighten automobiles by about ten pounds every year, that was half an ounce of metallic music to your ears nightly.* The symptoms extend beyond the rust belt, and express themselves in more than just Fords. Since 1972, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has had Volkswagen recall three-quarters of a million Sciroccos, Dashers, Rabbits, and Jettas with rusting fuel pumps and nearly as many cars with rusting brake lines. At NHTSA’s insistence, Mazda recalled more than a million cars with rusting idler arms, and Honda recalled nearly a million vehicles with rusting frames. Chrysler recalled half a million cars with rusting front suspensions and Subaru recalled as many with rust problems in the other end. Ford recalled nearly a million Explorers with rusty hood latches and nearly a million Mercurys and Tauruses with rust-prone springs, and in the fifth-largest recall in history, almost four million SUVs and pickups because corroding cruise-control switches could cause parked vehicles to catch fire. You’d hear that day or night. Rust, attacking rocker panels, door hinges, door latches, floor pans, frames, fuel lines, airbag sensors, brakes, bearings, ball joints, shift cables, engine computers, and hydraulic hoses, has led to steering loss, wheel loss, shifting loss, fuel tank loss, brake failure, airbag failure, wiper failure, axle failure, engine failure, and hoods flying open at speed. DeLorean made its bodies out of stainless steel, old Land Rovers had galvanized chassis, and some 1965 Rolls-Royces had galvanized underbodies, but few automobile companies have steered clear of corrosion. Hyundai, Nissan, Jeep, Toyota, GM, Isuzu, Suzuki, Mercedes, Fiat, Peugeot, Lexus, and Cadillac have all recalled automobiles because of rust. More than once, Firestone has recalled millions of steel-belted radials on account of rust. Of NHTSA, the president of the consumer rights advocacy organization Public Citizen, Joan Claybrook, had this to say in 2003: “They’ve made up more names for recalls than Carter has liver pills.” NHTSA never made up names for rust, though. It’s always just corrosion. The godfather of American corrosion studies, a metallurgical engineer named Mars Fontana, once joked that in addition to the eight forms of corrosion he had defined, an additional form was “automobile corrosion.”
In the twenty-one states that the DOT calls the “salt belt states”—the upper right quadrant of the contiguous United States, everywhere north and east of Kansas City, Missouri—it’s not hard to suffer from the malady. In postwar suburbia, state departments of transportation resorted to salt (sodium chloride or calcium chloride) like addicts, doubling their use on highways every five years until 1970. By then, the country used about ten million tons of salt a year. It’s fluctuated mildly since. Salt is bad news because chlorine is as reactive as oxygen, and more persistent. By 1990, the total bill for nationwide salting was half a billion dollars; Robert Baboian, a straight-talking corrosion engineer with much experience in public and private consulting, contributed to a Transportation Research Board study on the matter. No use in cutting back now, he wrote—the salt had long since begun reacting with the steel in bridges, such that the chloride ions were embedded like trillions of tics. Salting has much to do with the deficient condition of the country’s bridges, but at least you can spin your steel-belted radials on wet pavement on a snowy day. The cost of maintaining those bridges also had much to do with the DOT’s funding of the 2001 study of the nationwide cost of corrosion, which made the cost of salt look like peanuts.
Thanks to better design (eliminating areas that hold mud and moisture), galvanized parts, improved primers and paints, and tests in salt mist facilities—giant steam ovens for cars—auto manufacturers got a handle on corrosion more or less around Y2K. Bridges haven’t caught up. As a result, few other agencies are pulled in directions so opposite with such force as the DOT. Yet there are limits to how far it may be stretched. A new car, the agency figures, you can afford; a new plane, it figures, you cannot. At airports, the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits the use of standard chloride-containing highway salts. Instead, airports rely on deicing alternatives like acetates, formates, and urea. The most common, calcium magnesium acetate, is one-fifth as corrosive as salt on steel and one-tenth as corrosive on aluminum. It also costs twelve times as much as salt. To deice planes, airports rely on glycols. If you really want your car to last, drive exclusively down runways.
Beyond the domain of the FAA, rust troubles us almost everywhere. Oil rig designers put one extra inch of steel on the bottom of offshore oil platforms, calling it a “corrosion allowance.” Some engineers mitigate “urine splash” in bathroom fixtures; others design bridges with corrosive pigeon poop in mind. More than a few engineers ensure that corrosion doesn’t ruin your can of Coke before you get to it. Relying on corrosion tests (developed by Baboian), the US Mint designed new pennies and dollar coins. The government does not want, literally, to lose money. Cloud Gate, the sixty-foot, hundred-ton bean-like sculpture in Chicago, was made of a low-sulfur stainless steel so that it would remain shiny, and so that it would endure for a thousand years the road salt deposited by Chicago’s other godlike agency. Engine oil, gasoline, and coolant all contain corrosion inhibitors—in concentrations from a few parts per million to a thousand times that. In gasoline, the inhibitors protect not just your car’s fuel tank, but the gas station’s underground storage tank, and the pipeline through which the gasoline was delivered. To protect water mains, tap water contains a corrosion inhibitor. Where I live, twenty-five miles east of the continental divide in Colorado, it’s lime (calcium hydroxide), though other municipalities use sodium hydroxide or phosphates. Engineers in my town add the stuff from a fifty-thousand-pound tank, much like a flour sifter, to counteract the acidity that results from processing water. The clearest, safest, cleanest water just happens to be slightly acidic. As such, it’s corrosive. They add lime to make the water slightly basic. As water flows from the Rockies to the Mississippi, and gets successively treated by more municipalities, it grows laden with calcium and magnesium, becoming what most people call hard. It’s not like utilities are trying to make the water hard. They’re trying to load it up with positive ions and make it less corrosive. City governments see water mains as the DOT sees planes: worth keeping operational as long as possible. Showerheads and faucets: clogged with minerals, they’re as repairable or replaceable as Fords.
Only a small portion of Fortune 500 companies—those in finance, insurance, or banking—are privileged enough not to overtly deal with corrosion. Of course, corrosion is a major concern where their servers are stored. To inhibit rust in server rooms, companies use dehumidifiers and gas filters that remove ozone, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen sulfide, chlorine, sulfur dioxide, and ammonia to minute (less than a few parts per billion) levels. On the Principality of Sealand—a tiny platform in the North Sea—server rooms are filled with nitrogen, so that anyone entering needs to put on scuba gear. This anoxic environment provides a certain type of security, and ensures against corrosion.
Rust is so prevalent that regarding it the Bible offers a sense of defeatism. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal,” says Matthew 6:19. Why improve thy lot if nature will unimprove your work while others plot to take it? A Yiddish proverb suggests the same inevitability: “Trouble is to man what rust is to iron.” Rust has been such a mainstay that the British admiralty, in 1810, refused to hear a proposal on using iron rather than wood for ships. The Royal Navy figured that “iron doesn’t swim.” Lloyd’s, too, wouldn’t insure oceangoing metal ships for more than two decades after such things began moving cargo.
In industrializing America, where one author called rust “the great destroyer” and another simply referred to it as “the evil,” corrosion seemed such a threat that urban critics considered it folly to build skyscrapers with steel. In Chicago in 1902, engineers debating corrosion rates predicted that the city’s first steel structures would fall down in three years. In New York that same year, when one of the city’s earliest skyscrapers, the eight-story Pabst Building, was eliminated (to make room for Adolph Ochs’s twenty-five-story Times Tower), it was disassembled beam by beam, bolt by bolt, so that engineers could examine the effect of the damp climate on the steel. Many had said that erecting such buildings so near the coast was ridiculous.
By the end of the twentieth century, judicial opinion well recognized that rust was both inevitable and dangerous. Judge Linda Chezem, of the Indiana Court of Appeals, addressed corrosion in a case involving a leaking underground storage tank (UST) at a gas station halfway between Indianapolis and Chicago, smack in the middle of the rust belt. She wrote:
Evidence was presented that Shell and Union understood that steel USTs are subject to corrosion; that steel USTs eventually leak; that leaks were impossible to prevent (prior to 1980s technology); that slow leaks were virtually impossible for the on-site gas station employees to detect (with the primitive dipstick method); that the solution to the problem required significant engineering knowledge and resources beyond the limits of most gas station owners; and that small amounts of gasoline leaking into groundwater over a long time can pollute an entire community’s drinking water with benzene, a human carcinogen.
In other words: Oh, steel: that stuff’s unreliable. Everybody knows that. Failure is destiny, and if we don’t fix it, we’ll all get cancer because of it.
There’s even rust in outer space, on account of atomic (rather than molecular) oxygen—no small challenge for NASA. Rust is ubiquitous. It’s why cast-iron skillets are oiled, why copper wires are sheathed, why lightbulbs contain no oxygen, why spark plug electrodes are made of metals such as yttrium, iridium, platinum, or palladium, and why serious dental work costs an arm and a leg. The highest-ranked rust official in the country calls it “the pervasive menace.”
Almost every metal is vulnerable to corrosion. Rust inflicts visible scars, turning calcium white, copper green, scandium pink, strontium yellow, terbium maroon, thallium blue, and thorium gray, then black. It’s turned Mars red. On Earth, it gives the Grand Canyon, bricks, Mexican tile, and blood their hue. A ruthless enemy, it never sleeps, reminding us constantly that metals, just like us, are mortal. Were Mad Men’s Don Draper to pitch metal, he’d say it’s like a maiden: rare, unrivaled in beauty, and impossibly alluring; but also demanding of constant attention, best watched carefully, quick to age, and intrinsically unfaithful. This of modern society’s most important material!*
Yet rust sneaks below the radar. Because it’s more sluggish than hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, blizzards, and floods, rust ranks dead last in drama. There’s no rust channel. But rust is costlier than all other natural disasters combined, amounting to 3 percent of GDP, or $437 billion annually, more than the GDP of Sweden. That averages out to about $1500 per person every year. It’s more if you live in Ohio, more if you own a boat like Syzygy, much more if you command an aircraft carrier.
Nevertheless, rust is glossed over more than it’s taught, because neither engineering students nor professors are drawn to it. It’s just not sexy. John Scully, the editor of the journal Corrosion, told me corrosion gets no respect. “It’s like saying you work in mold or something,” he said. Ray Taylor, who runs the National Corrosion Center, an interdisciplinary agglomeration at Texas A&M that sounds bigger than it is, was more blunt. “We’re sort of the wart on the ass of the pig,” he said. A former rust industry executive said he and his colleagues always felt like the Rodney Dangerfields of the engineering community.
Sensing as much, we avoid the word. Residents of Rust, California, changed the town’s name, a century ago, to El Cerrito. Politicians, too, know better than to mention rust. Though a few presidents have mentioned infrastructure and maintenance, none has mentioned corrosion or rust in a State of the Union address. President Obama has, between 2011 and 2013, called America’s infrastructure failing, crumbling, aging, deteriorating, and deficient—but he didn’t call it rusty. That’s as close as a president has come to uttering the word. Like a condition between high cholesterol and hemorrhoids, rust is a nuisance that we’d prefer not to deal with, and certainly not talk about in public. Confidentially, industry representatives inquire with Luz Marina Calle, the director of the Corrosion Technology Laboratory at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, regarding their rust woes. Privately, Americans call John Carmona, the proprietor of the Rust Store, and ask for advice. Thanks to New York Times political columnist David Brooks, the threat of moral corrosion instills more fear than the threat of physical corrosion. But from those who ascribe no shame to talking about rust, stories emerge in the manner of scars and broken bones. People talk about the bottoms of their wells, their barbecue grills, their bicycle chains. They invoke a Neil Young line. Most often, stories begin with, “Oh man, I once had this car . . .” Was it, perhaps, a Ford?
As if to mask our reticence and apparent helplessness, most of us civilians fight rust like sailors. We attack with words. We’re attacking metal with Rust Fighter, Rust Destroyer, Rust Killer, Rust Bandit; garrisoning with Rust Defender, Rust-Shield, Rust Guard; using weapons like Rust Bomb, RustBlast, Corrosion Grenade, and Rust Bullet—the latter of which is available in a Rapid Fire model or in a Six Shooter Combo Pack. The products suggest that in our reaction we’re putting up a good fight. But flight also works. Consider a 1960s newspaper ad for United Airlines. It said, “Prevent Rust. Periodic application of our Sunbird jets keeps the rust off your golf game, clubs, and you. United Sunbirds nonstop it to San Diego . . . Where the skies are not cloudy all day.”
Golf clubs in San Diego still rust, as do ships at the naval base there. Jets in Tucson, Arizona, still rust, as do hammers in Oymyakon, Siberia, but five hundred times slower than they do at Punta Galeta, Panama.* This, according to measurements compiled by corrosion consultant extraordinaire Robert Baboian in the NACE Corrosion Engineer’s Reference Book. Some fifteen thousand Americans working in corrosion have reason to consult this text. They range from linear and serious and introverted to scattered and rebellious and distractably sociable. Very few of them think of themselves as rust people. They work in “integrity management,” or as coatings specialists, or as engineers or chemists. Reclusive or not, they’re humble about their work. Many, I found, possess a keen awareness of their role in society, referring to themselves as members of the three “rusketeers” or of rust’s three amigos. Because the world of rust is pretty small, most know each other. When tank cars full of chlorine spill, for example, the three amigos collaborate.
Most corrosion engineers are men. In my rough estimation, something like two thirds of these rust guys are mustachioed. I have a two-part theory about it. I suspect that (1) such men recognize that fighting the growth of hair on their upper lips is futile, and that trimming, combing, and maintaining makes much more sense; and that (2) such men, many of them technically minded engineers who work within strict bounds, have few other artistic outlets. Even Baboian, back in the seventies, had a mustache. They talk about galling, spalling, necking, and jacking; holidays, tubercles, and tubulars; pigs, squids, and perfect ends. About rust, one wrote a decent poem, but not one has yet devised a decent joke. Many have unique perspectives. “You’re gonna be wrong a lot in corrosion,” one, in Alaska, told me. “You’re gonna think you have it pegged down, but you’ll get nailed in the ass. It’s a little adventure as you go along.”
Fighting rust is more than adventurous. Often it’s scandalous. For those trying to understand rust, prevent rust, detect rust, eliminate rust, yield to rust, find beauty in rust, capitalize on rust, raise awareness of rust, and teach about rust, work is riddled with scams, lawsuits, turf battles, and unwelcome oversight. Explosions, collisions, arrests, threats, and insults abound. So does war: rust and war have a long, tangled history, and together led to many fixtures of modern society. In addition to Big Auto, the following stories include Big Oil, whose products go toward Big Plastic and, in turn, Big Paint. A great deal of corrosion work entails studying how well paint sticks: to the Statue of Liberty, to the inside of a can, to the outside of a pipe, to the hull of a ship, to the hood of a Ford. The stories even include Hollywood and Big Tobacco. As the late senator Warren Magnuson of Washington, who on a warm March day in 1967 introduced the legislation that granted federal oversight of pipelines, would have said: they include all of the Big Boys.
Much of what follows explores our posture toward maintenance, and in that regard, reveals our humility (or lack thereof), willingness to compromise, and fundamental awareness. Rust represents the disordering of the modern, and it reveals many of our vices: greed, pride, arrogance, impatience, and sloth. It reveals the potency of our foresight, the weakness of our hubris, our grasp of risk, and our understanding of the role we fill in the world. What a predicament! Thus far, in the affairs of man and metal, our efforts have ranged from pathetic to ingenious, political to secretive. Of the many people I spoke to about rust, only one, an advisor to many federal science agencies named Alan Moghissi, saw rust as an opportunity. He imagined it could become as big as the environmental movement of the 1970s.
So easy to ignore, rust threatens our health, safety, security, environment, and future, and nearly got away with destroying our national symbol of liberty. Surrounded by stainless steel scissors, sinks, spoons, stoves, and escalator treads, we take nonrusting steel for granted—though it’s only a century old. Expecting solutions, we disregard the management that most metals require. Can’t we create a rust-free world?
A rust-free world would be a world without metal. In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman cleverly illustrates the short-lived nature of metalworks. After only twenty years sans humans, he writes, unabated corrosion would destroy many of the train bridges on Manhattan’s East Side; after a few hundred years all of New York’s bridges would fail; a few thousand years from now the only intact structures would be those deep underground; and seven million years from now vestiges of Mount Rushmore would be all that’s left to show that we’d once been here. Marc Reisner, in Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, writes that, much to our dismay, massive concrete dams—millions of cubic yards’ worth—may be what we end up leaving for future archaeologists to ponder. I like to think that they’ll consider those dams the same way we consider the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the Great Wall of China, and the Parthenon. Better yet, I like to imagine them finding the granite foundation on Liberty Island, the statue above long since vanished, wondering, perhaps, if people once tried to dam the Hudson.
Like radioactive elements, most metals—the ones we rely on—have a half-life. But we don’t recognize it. “We seem not at all resigned to the idea of major engineering structures having the same mortality as we,” Henry Petroski writes in the classic To Engineer Is Human. “Somehow, as adults who forget their childhood, we expect our constructions to have evolved into monuments, not into mistakes. It is as if engineers, and nonengineers alike, being human, want their creations to be superhuman. And that may not seem to be an unrealistic aspiration, for the flesh and bone of steel and stone can seem immortal when compared with the likes of man.”
If most of America’s bridges, ships, cars, pipelines, and so on don’t bring to mind mortality, surely one structure in the middle of Pittsburgh does. It’s the U.S. Steel tower and eerily, almost menacingly, it looms above the city. It was built in 1970 of U.S. Steel’s latest stuff: a “weathering steel” called Cor-Ten that works like stainless steel but develops a brown patina. A protective layer of rust. As the steel weathered, the brown developed on more than just the building. Embarrassing the hell out of U.S. Steel, the building stained the sidewalks below, until they had a distinct reddish tinge a block in all directions. The sidewalks have since been cleaned, and the building has since darkened into a hue best described as Darth Vader Lite. It looks dead. The psychology building at Cornell is made of the same stuff. Students at Big Red call it Old Rusty.
*1. Because corrosion is exothermic, the skin of a corroding Ford becomes hotter than the metal underlying it, and this thermal gradient generates local stress called electrostriction. Technically, with the right tools, you really could hear it.
*2. Oddly enough, iron retains a trustworthy metaphoric reputation: an iron will, an iron fist, an iron hand, a mind like a steel trap. As for the Man of Steel, who needs Kryptonite when saltwater will do the trick?
*3. Punta Galeta, Panama, wet six days a week, holds the world’s highest corrosion rates for steel, zinc, and copper, and is conveniently located at the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. For aluminum, though, the most threatening place in the world is Auby, France.