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 November 2007
Plain Talk for a New Generation

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM International

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The Ripple Effect

Standardization is a process by which life is made better. This was brought home to me this month as I read papers that were submitted to the ASTM International Advantage Award competition. We asked participants to tell us about the impact of ASTM standards on real life, on real people, in real situations. The winners are presented this month, and they are outstanding. But the impact of the full competition and the range of stories was something I wasn’t quite prepared for.

What is the full effect of an ASTM International standard on the ground? Maybe we’ll never know. We drop a pebble in the lake but can’t stay to watch the ripples. In the development process, it’s always time to move on, revisit, revise. That is, of course, what makes ASTM standards so vital and relevant. But standards developers also need to know that standards are more than what we create for ourselves, more than an expression of what we know about technology, more than the knowledge we publish. We need to know, beyond our companies, our agencies, and our own experiences, how ASTM standards change the lives of people we’ll never meet, how much they mean to so many.

The winning papers speak for themselves and I invite you to read these worthy submissions. I’d also like to share with you some of the success stories contained in other submissions. There was one from Zimbabwe on biofuels. In 2002, Zimbabwe, hit by a major energy deficit, began to promote research to extract biodiesel from the seeds of a locally grown Jatropha curcas plant, a succulent that’s hearty enough to grow even in Zimbabwean wastelands. J. curcas has also been planted in Swaziland, Zambia, Madagascar and Malawi for this purpose, reducing poverty levels by creating thousands of jobs and improving rural employment in these countries. The paper traces this project to Zimbabwe’s adoption of ASTM standard D 6751, Specification for Biodiesel Fuel Blend Stock (B100) for Middle Distillate Fuels; this biodiesel fuel blend stock uses soybean as feedstock. D 6751 also references 22 ASTM test methods that have been tried successfully in Zimbabwean laboratories. A Zimbabwean research team has been established to characterize biodiesel blends made from J. curcas, using the ASTM specification and test methods as the technical base. Similar projects are under way for the production of ethanol from sugar cane. Again, ASTM standards will be used. These ASTM standards are providing a developing country’s solution to a universal problem. They are being used by resourceful people, making use of the resources they have. This use of an ASTM standard may not be conventional, but it is imaginative, and a ripple that will affect many lives for years to come.

There were two stories from China, a country we have always described by the numbers of ASTM International standards used (more than 500). While the numbers are impressive, what do ASTM standards actually do and what do they mean for people in China? China’s industrial boom, like so many others, has extracted its price: pollution, improper disposition of hazardous wastes and damage to human health. The first paper told of three of the most important ASTM documents in China today: E 1527, Practice for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase I Environmental Site Assessment Process; E 1528, Practice for Limited Environmental Due Diligence: Transaction Screen Process; and E 1903, Guide for Environmental Site Assessments: Phase II Environmental Site Assessment Process. Other related ASTM standards are in wide use in China, such as D 5980, Guide for Selection and Documentation of Existing Wells for Use in Environmental Site Characterization and Monitoring. Imagine what this means to landowners small and large, to children and senior citizens who are especially vulnerable to hazards in soil and water.

The second paper explored such questions as why so many Chinese technical experts and government employees are joining ASTM International. The figures are impressive as well, but one of the more poignant points in this paper was the desire of these experts, in the words of the writer, “to add their own voice” to the process of standards development. An intangible ripple, but the implications are enormous.

There were papers from the United States, of course, but in addition to Zimbabwe and China, they came from Canada, India and Nigeria. These papers were hard work, written by people who were already hard at work. They took thought and effort and, in some cases, the courage to overcome language barriers. But they were loud and clear, and each was a story worth telling. I cannot thank you enough, those of you who entered. Everything you told us was good and inspiring. You brought ASTM standards to life and helped us see them work in the real world, all over the world. //

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM