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Environmentally Friendly


Lubricants: Biodegradable or Nontoxic


Terry Smith


Director of Environmental, Safety & Laboratory Services Lubrication Engineers, Inc.


Over the past decade and possibly longer, biodegradation has been the predominant yardstick to measure how lubricants rate for being environmentally friendly. It was thought that the more completely a lubricant decomposes to harmless hydrogen-carbon-oxygen compounds, the better the lubricant will be for the environment. While a high degree of biodegradation can be a lubricant benefit, biodegradation alone does not provide a complete picture of how a lubricant affects the environment. Consideration should also be given to the different ways a lubricant affects the environment.


For example, consider a lubricant that will be 100 percent degraded in 28 days. Is it still environmentally friendly if it is toxic and destroys or alters a significant portion of plant or animal life during the degradation process?


How is a lubricant defined as being environmentally friendly? What method quantifies its success? How do those who are developing environmentally friendly lubricants know if they are truly improving or merely maintaining the status quo?


Toxicity A measurement to consider beyond biodegradation is toxicity. Determining the toxicity of a lubricant is crucial to establishing its status as environmentally friendly. However, it has been difficult to find a test method that is simple, cost-effective and quick in evaluating lubricant toxicity.


Numerous toxicity test methods have been available for years, and some of these traditional screening protocols have been used to evaluate lubricants. Some of the tests have adapted well to evaluating lubricants, others have required great modification and others do not work at all. All traditional toxicity tests seem to suffer when testing lubricants because the methods tend to be suited for aqueous samples, not lubricants that are nonaqueous.


Many toxicity tests attempt to determine the lethal dose (LD50) to an animal species being tested. The LD50 determines the amount of exposure the studied species can tolerate with a resulting 50 percent mortality rate. The species of animal studied is virtually limitless and can range from water fleas to sea creatures to mammals.


Traditional toxicity tests require a well-equipped laboratory (usually dedicated solely to toxicity testing) and a well-trained laboratory support staff knowledgeable in the intricacies of the specific testing. Additionally, an inventory of the test species must be maintained. This is relatively easy for smaller and lower life forms of test species, but as testing evolves to larger mammals, the maintenance of the test animals becomes more difficult and costly. The traditional toxicity testing can take weeks to months to acquire data, cost thousands of dollars and still not produce high-quality data with good reproducibility.


Continued on page 12


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LUBE MAGAZINE NO.141 OCTOBER 2017


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