Humans Become Unwilling Test Subjects in West Virginia Chemical SpillS

Last week, thousands of gallons of a poorly understood compound called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) spilled from Freedom Industries chemical complex into West Virginia's Elk River before quickly spreading to the water supplies of hundreds of thousands of people. Sound scary? It gets worse.

Above: Freedom Industries Chemical Complex, via AP

In the days following the spill, state regulators and water experts were embarrassingly unsure what to expect from the contamination. In fact, the director of the West Virginia Water Institute told Salon that in 25 years of working on water-related issues, this was "the first [he'd] heard of this chemical."

What happened next was a chilling, real-world example of how lack of knowledge, understanding and preparedness can severely hamstring an emergency response. Deborah Blum has summarized the events in a pair of must-read articles published over at Wired:

Following the spill, West Virginia issued a "do not use" notice to all consumers on water systems fed by the river. It has since lifted that restriction for almost all consumers, barring parts of one county where contamination levels seemed to have spiked back up. Meanwhile, the plume of contaminated water has rippled from the Elk River into the Ohio River; several days ago, the city of Cincinnati announced that it would shut down its intake valves there due to the MCHM threat. The plume is predicted to be in Indiana by Monday. Following both the plume and the story, however, makes you realize that no one really knows what that means in terms of health risks

The fact that the government regulators and agencies really had no idea of the water's safety became extra obvious this week, when West Virginia first lifted its drinking water bans and then hastily announced that perhaps pregnant women shouldn't drink the water after all. (I've linked here to the West Virginia Gazette, whose reporters have done an exceptional job of telling the story). Private physicians remained wary anyway, warning that young children shouldn't touch the stuff either.

In the flurry of anxious response it became evident that the state had issued that second warning based on the advice of the CDC. You'll find that information here in an agency statement (many thanks to my fellow Wired blogger, Maryn McKenna, for alerting me to it) which asks the question "What is the acceptable level of MCHM in Drinking Water?", answers it with a flat "There should be no MCHM in drinking water," establishes a 1 ppm safety standard anyway, and then almost visibly dithers: "Due to limited availability of data, and out of an abundance of caution, pregnant women may wish to consider an alternative drinking water source until the chemical is at non-detectable levels in the water distribution system."

In reading Blum's pieces, we learn that the lack of preparedness on the part of local officials can be traced to a dearth of safety data on MCHM, one of over 60,000 compounds grandfathered in with passage of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. "Basically that meant that no further testing was required," writes Blum. "The assumption was that these chemicals, which apparently hadn't killed anyone yet, were unlikely to do so."

As a result, what little we do know about MCHM is based not on government research, not on independent testing, but on what Blum describes as a "superficial analysis" conducted by Eastman Chemical Company in 1998. The global manufacturing company opted to investigate MCHM's safety by its own initiative, prior to increasing its production of the compound. While Eastman's analysis may have been superficial, writes Blum, the company "deserves some credit because, as far as I can tell, no one else, including our regulatory agencies, had MCHM on the research agenda."

The realization that the involvement of federal regulatory agencies was effectively zilch could be the most disturbing takeaway of all. The results of Eastman's analysis (published here, though Blum dissects them masterfully in the second of her two pieces) conclude that MCHM is "slightly toxic" – i.e. "not one of the worst compounds out there – but not one of the benign ones either." And in fact, only about 32 West Virginians are reported to have sought medical treatment after exposure to their contaminated water, only four of whom were admitted to the hospital. These are all good things, but they should not, says Blum, distract from the larger issue:

Where's the outcry demanding that we actually invest in research that would provide the information we so desperately needed this time – and will undoubtedly need again? Where is the national outcry, the realization that this is a situation that puts all of us at risk? Instead of congratulating ourselves on that fortunate survival rate, why aren't we demanding better protection. By that I mean a richer database, a more transparent information system, and, yes, an update of our embarrassingly antiquated regulation of all things poisonous?

The situation in West Virginia is about the closest a population can come to this kind of major public health crisis without actually reaching it. As free warnings go, this is a big one. We'd all do well to heed its message. Start by reading Blum's pieces [ 1, 2], which will give you an even clearer idea of what that message is.