What do you do when you don’t know?
17 January 2014. A week ago, several thousand gallons of a coal-processing chemical called MCHM leaked from storage tanks into a drinking water supply in the Kanawha Valley, West Virginia, USA. State authorities soon issued warnings against using the community water in the an area that includes state capitol Charleston. Within hours, local stores ran out of bottled water. For several days, the leak forced 300,000 residents along with restaurants and businesses to rely on alternative water sources.
How could this huge chemical spill happen? Few details have been made public so far, but here are some of the things that went wrong: The tank facilities had not been inspected since 1991. In fact, storage tanks are not required to be inspected like chemical manufacturing or processing facilities. Company maintenance and safety management were apparently insufficient, but nobody checked until it was too late. The spill was discovered by local residents who complained about an objectionable odor, but methods to determine the chemical were unavailable, and no routine testing is done. The water supply system in the Kanawha Valley – also known as Chemical Valley – was already known to be highly susceptible to chemical contamination from the many chemical industries. Emergency preparedness? Hardly. But MCHM is not classified as “extremely hazardous” under federal legislation, and officials were therefore not required to have an emergency plan in place.
After the news broke, confusion reigned. Nobody knew anything about the possible risks from exposure to MCHM, or 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol. A state of emergency was declared for the nine counties affected by the chemical spill. Then, after discussions with federal experts, a low MCHM concentration of 1 part per million (1 milligram per liter) was said to be safe for West Virginians to drink. However, the officials refused to explain how they calculated that figure in the absence of any toxicology information, regulatory guidelines or published health standards for the material.
The only information available was a confidential report from MCHM producer Eastman that a dose of 825 milligrams per kilogram would kill half of the rats exposed. The published literature is devoid of information on the material, its possible long-term effects, the toxicity during human development, including possible chemical brain drain. In his blog with the Environmental Defense Fund, toxicologist Richard Denison complained that West Virginia officials were trusting “shaky science” in their rush to restore water service to the residents. No health data are available on this chemical, and we therefore don’t know if we should be comforted that nobody was poisoned, as we have no knowledge about any long-term consequences.
This incident at the same time exposes a gaping hole in the U.S. chemical regulations legislation. In fact, the problem can be traced back to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the law that regulates chemical safety. When it was enacted, it excluded the large group of chemicals that were already in use, including MCHM. All of these substances were “grandfathered” in and considered “safe”. That was a huge mistake.
Late Wednesday evening, West Virginia officials finally decided that pregnant women should not drink the water at all, until MCHM was no longer detectable. According to the authorities, this decision was made out of “an abundance of precaution” based on consultations with the U.S. Centers for Disease control. This abundance of precaution came a bit late.
“This is your community and your rights and your water,” consumer advocate Erin Brockovich told a community meeting earlier in the week. Yes, and your children and their brains deserve to be protected against toxic as well as “unknown” chemicals.