Airblast Responds to Inaccurate BBC Programme Statement

The BBC recently aired a new programme “Paul Whitehouse: Our Troubled Rivers”. In it, Professor Jamie Woodward of the University of Manchester made an inaccurate statement about the role of plastic media in riverbed pollution. Read our request for clarification and correction in full here.

Request for clarification and correction

Paul Whitehouse: Our Troubled Rivers

Series 1: Episode 1

Aired 8pm 5 March 2023

Point made @ 28 minutes by Professor Jamie Woodward of the University of Manchester

During the above programme, Professor Jamie Woodward stated that the spherical plastic balls Paul Whitehouse was seeing under the microscope “came from shot blasting or bead blasting.” This is not correct, and we are formally requesting a correction and clarification under Section 3 of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines for the following reasons:

“Bead blasting” is a term originally associated with the use of glass or metallic beads as a blast media, most commonly glass. Neither material is commonly used for the removal of paint or corrosion. They are typically used to debur or achieve an even finish or ‘key’ on metallic components, fabrications, or structures. Over time it has become a term associated with shot or grit blasting in general. Blasting with plastic is almost always, if not exclusively, carried out with granular plastic – not spherical plastic.

Evidence of beads on a riverbed is not an indicator of bead blasting activities, it is quite the opposite. If the programme makers have evidence to the contrary, we would appreciate sight of that.  The erroneous statement that the presence of plastic beads on a riverbed is the result of “shot blasting or bead blasting” in connection with the claim that Duckenfield has the highest concentration of micro plastic on a river bead that you have ever witnessed “in the world” is damaging, misleading and careless. United Utilities has questioned the data and sampling processes used.

Plastic media blasting or plastic bead blasting is also known as selective stripping. It is such a delicate process that the term “selective stripping” is derived from its ability to remove one layer of paint at a time. Plastic media is particularly expensive, and as such it is only ever used in controlled circumstances where the media can be recycled within an enclosure specifically designed to do this.

Plastic media blasting is rarely used and is only suited to a small number of applications. Typical use of this process would be the removal of paint from a military aircraft fuselage. Such coatings can contain hazardous substances such as chromate and as such, the collection of media, spent media and dust is carefully considered and catered for. Other areas where plastic media is used are removal of coatings from composite structures. For instance, with carbon fibre, a coating can be removed without interfering with the structural integrity of the piece being worked on. Whilst there are other peripheral uses for plastic media, to our knowledge, they are niche in the extreme and are always carefully contained processes that recycle media before it is collected as dust through sophisticated dust collection systems for suitable controlled disposal.

It might also be interesting to note that this process, particularly in aerospace, was brought in to replace chemical stripping which posed a greater ecological threat. The notion that plastic media and particularly beads are used in such a way that they would remove rust, or paint in an environment where the residue could find its way into a water course, in any meaningful quantity if at all, is difficult to imagine. We would suggest that more common abrasives used in areas open to the atmosphere for rust or paint removal would be mineral based, olivine, garnet etc. or alternatively inert crushed glass or copper slag. With all these inert abrasives, the main consideration, with regards to contamination of the environment, is not the abrasives themselves, but the coatings that they are removing.

At 28min 15sec Jamie Woodward states with reference to micro beads collected from the riverbed: “They are used in a process called shot blasting or bead blasting, removing paint and rust or coatings that you want to get rid of and then at the end of the day they just get washed down the grid and end up in our drainage system”. We assume that products containing micro plastic beads such as toothpaste, cosmetics etc. are more likely to appear in the runoff from water treatment plants.

The above points are made based on our decades of experience in this market, manufacturing machinery for UK and US that handle abrasives such as this. During all this time we have never come across a scenario where plastic beads are used outside controlled stripping booth or cabinets.

We would welcome information that you have to the contrary and an indication please that the BBC has exercised its duty in achieving due accuracy for its output.