Epidemiology in West Virginia

The storage tanks at Freedom Industries on the banks of the Elk River just east of Charleston, W.Va. Photo by Joel Achenbach
The storage tanks at Freedom Industries on the banks of the Elk River just east of Charleston, W.Va. Photo by Joel Achenbach

[I hope everyone had a wonderful MLK Birthday holiday. This item is a little late to the game -- I wrote some of it this weekend -- but I think it's still relevant.] [Meanwhile, count me as someone hoping for a major snowfall, finally, after a three-year snow drought. And please don't yell at Jason or the other meteorologists if it turns out to be a bust. As I wrote previously: snow is hard.]

To date, the best toxicology study on the human health hazards posed by the chemical known as Crude MCHM has been the recent experiment in which it was put into the public water supply in West Virginia and distributed through the plumbing in homes, schools, hospitals and businesses throughout a nine-county area.

No one has dropped dead, so we know it’s not extremely toxic.

More than 400 people have reported to emergency rooms, complaining of rashes and other ailments, but officials have said that many fall into the category of “the worried well.”

In a perfect world, one wouldn’t conduct an experiment in this way, which began when Crude MCHM leaked from a one-inch hole in the bottom of an aging tank at a former Pennzoil storage facility now owned by Freedom Industries. The tank farm is on the bank above the Elk River, and in a perfect world the “containment” area around the tanks would have actually have contained the leak, and perhaps there would have been a secondary containment area lower down the bank, and perhaps the intake for the water system would not have been in the heart of the city but farther upstream, above the industrial infrastructure.

I wrote a news story this weekend about the broader issue of chemical safety. Congress is trying to update a 38-year-old chemical safety act, TSCA, referred to as “Tosca.” Here on the blog I can post some of the background information in greater detail.

The Material Safety Data Sheet for Crude MCHM contains, by my count, 152 uses of the phrase “No data available.” I contacted Eastman Chemical Co., which makes the stuff, and asked about the profusion of non-information. The spokesperson said the chemical had been tested 18 times, that the company, which operates globally, meets more exacting European standards, and she noted that nine of those “No data available” entries referred to water — which we know isn’t toxic. She also made a couple of key points: Under U.S. law, Eastman had no obligation to perform toxicology tests on the chemical. Second, these tests are designed to assess the hazardous nature of a chemical if it used properly in its industrial setting. In other words, the system is designed to see if this stuff poses a threat if used for its intended purpose — in this case, as an agent for treating coal prior to combustion. The system doesn’t countenance the notion that it would be put into the public water supply.

Whenever there’s a big industrial accident, typically we go through a period of trying to find out why there were breakdowns in the safety system, or in the regulatory process. In West Virginia, though, there really wasn’t a process designed to deal with this situation. The chemical wasn’t considered terribly hazardous, and the Freedom Industries tank farm was just a storage facility, which typically isn’t the kind of thing that’s regularly inspected. (Read my colleague Steve Mufson’s piece on Freedom Industries.) And the new chemical-safety law being considered in the Senate probably wouldn’t subject MCHM to stringent tests, because it would likely fall into the “low priority” category. Only “high priority” chemicals could be tested by EPA. So I’m told by sources on the Hill and in the activist community.

To a large extent, we rely on the private sector to police itself. But in this case, Freedom Industries was bought barely a week before the accident. The storage facility was part of a merger that went through at the end of December. It’s hard to know who exactly was minding the store. The accident itself may have been created by the Polar Vortex: The extreme cold could have damaged the storage tank (in one version I’ve heard, water leaked into the containment area and the ice punctured the tank). Then the containment area turned out to be useless — literally there were cracks in the system. And as has been noted a million times, the facility was just upstream from the water system’s intake.

Gravity took over from there.

[Additional reading: At Wired, Deborah Blum goes into the toxicity studies conducted by Eastman Chemical.]

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · January 16