About 300,000 residents of eight counties in West Virginia were told on Thursday not to drink, cook or wash with tap water (but they can still flush it down the toilet or put out a fire with it, officials added — what a relief). About 7,500 gallons of an industrial solvent used to clean coal had seeped from a ruptured holding tank into the Elk River. As of Monday morning, water tests had showed improvement, but the ban is still in place.
One of the most disturbing facts about the story is that the risks to health posed by the chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, are poorly understood. Science writer Deborah Blum reports for Wired.com on her frustrating search for information. David Biello sheds some light on the basic properties of the compound, which is a type of alcohol, in Scientific American.
The stories, and the comments attached, raise other important questions, directly or indirectly. How long had the tank been leaking, and how does such a failure go undetected, even for a day? (There are supposed to be alarms and other safety protocols.) How much of the chemical have residents already ingested, and what health issues could result? How culpable are the tank’s owner, Charleston-W. Va.-based Freedom Industries, and the state of West Virginia? The state gets a lot of grief for under-regulating the powerful coal industry. (And further, in what world does it seem OK to have such chemical tanks just upriver from a water system’s intake pipes? What can the EPA do? Can “Freedom Industries” be cited for its name alone? One can only hope).
Blum also brings up the 35-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act, saying it hasn’t been updated and strengthened in all that time. Why? And, of course, what will change as a result of this spill? Unfortunately, it often takes a nightmare to wake people up to the need for action.
UPDATE: Chemical spill muddies picture in a state wary of regulations – The New York Times
UPDATE: Critics say spill highlights lax West Virginia regulations – The New York Times
OP-ED: A predictable water crisis due in part to “audacious influence of industry” – Sunday Gazette-Mail
UPDATE: Hope flows as W. Va. water showing signs of improvement after spill – NBCNews.com
The wait continues for safe tap water in West Virginia – The New York Times
Freedom Industries cited for Elk chemical spill – Saturday Gazette-Mail
Chemical guesswork in West Virginia – Wired.com
How dangerous is the coal-washing chemical spilled in West Virginia? – Scientific American
Thousands of residents warned not to use water – wvgazette.com
Image: U.S. EPA
Today I’m posting a short roundup of international news about substances found in the water.
Hormone-disrupting chemicals found in water at fracking sites
A study of hydraulic fracturing sites in Colorado finds substances that have been linked to infertility, birth defects and cancer. (United States)
Ontario’s Grand River loaded with artificial sweeteners, study finds
It’s so chock full of artificial sweeteners that scientists say the chemicals can be used to track the movement of treated waste in the region’s municipal water supplies. (Canada)
Communication, cooperation key to water issues in Africa and Asia
Despite radically different cultures, climate, geography, and levels of government involvement in improving the lives of its citizens, Ethiopia, India, and China all face similar issues of water sanitation and hygiene. (Africa, Asia)
EPA drills wells to test groundwater contamination
As scientists home in on the source of contamination near Texas’ Donna Reservoir Superfund site, they drilled new wells this week to test the groundwater. (U.S.)
Pollution takes a toll on aquatic life in 150 river stretches
Discharge of untreated water in India has left 150 river stretches across the country too polluted to support any aquatic life. (India)
Judge approves $165 million settlements in Passaic River pollution case
A New Jersey judge has approved a pair of settlements worth $165.4 million to the state from nearly 300 companies, towns and public agencies accused of polluting the Passaic River. (U.S.)
Excuse me, my fellow American, but your drugs are in my tap water. And my drugs are in yours. The New Republic published an in-depth story today detailing the findings of major upcoming study: There are more pharmaceuticals in American tap water than drug companies thought possible. The estimates drug makers are required to make about their products’ environmental impact have been off the mark, at least in some cases, apparently.
Researchers have been looking at the issue for about 10 years. It’s not news that the drugs flushed down people’s toilets have an impact on aquatic life. For example, trace amounts of hormonal drugs mess with frog and fish reproduction, and even gender characteristics. But this study, conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and slated for January release in the journal Environmental Pollution, paints a clearer picture.
The study, the largest of its kind ever conducted, shows surprisingly high levels of a surprisingly wide range of drugs. It tested water from 50 large waste-water treatment plants for 56 prescription and over-the-counter drugs. It found at least 25 drugs in more than half of the samples. The leading drug class? Blood pressure medications.
Unfortunately, key questions about the situation remain unanswered so far, as the New Republic article indicates. Namely, what are the drugs doing to human health and ecosystems? What further testing and new regulatory conditions need to be put in place, and by whom? Is it feasible to remove the drugs? It’s all very murky, but the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration are working on additional studies.
Image: PD-US (public domain).