On the shoreof a disaster: faculty address Elk River chemical spill

A January 9chemical spill contaminated the water supply of hundreds of thousands of WestVirginia residents with a chemical agent used to clean coal (crude4-methylcyclohexane methane, or MCHM). And for two Saint Joseph’s facultymembers—chemistry professor Dr. Emily Lesher and assistant professor ofpsychology Dr. Marion Young—the ensuing concerns and questions over thisincident hit close to home.

Lesher, whoearned her doctorate from the Colorado School of Mines, and specializes inwater quality and analysis and mining’s impact on the environment, among othertopics, was quick to point out that the chemical spill and the uncertainty ofthe chemical’s effects on people pointed to regulatory concerns. And for Young,a developmental psychologist who earned her doctorate from West VirginiaUniversity, the confusion over the chemical’s potential effects on thepopulation raised a series of questions on how the ensuing mental stress couldharm the residents.

Afterreceiving reports of a licorice-like odor in residents’ tap water, WestVirginia state officials traced the leak to a storage containment area alongthe Elk River. By the time the discovery was made, as much as 10,000 gallons ofa chemical mixture composed primarily of MCHM had seeped into water supply.Officials then issued a do-not-use order for tap water, but not before hundredsof people sought medical attention for rashes, stomachaches, and othershort-term ailments. While there were these visible signs of people beingaffected by the chemical, Lesher says there is still more to be understoodabout its effects on the body.

Passed byCongress in 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulates theintroduction of new chemicals. But since MCHM and tens of thousands of otherchemicals were introduced before 1976, minimal research and testing areavailable on them.

“Anychemical introduced after 1976 has to have a baseline of testing—toxicitytesting, epidemiology studies,” says Lesher. “But for the ones that came before’76, the attitude’s kind of like, ‘These chemicals have been around for solong, and nothing bad has happened, so they must be OK.’ That’s not the casewhen it gets in your drinking water.”

The ElkRiver spill and the chemical’s uncertain long-term effects “fall under therealm of disaster psychology,” says Young. “It’s defined as an unexpected oruncontrollable event: This thing happens to you, and you have no control overit. That’s where all the stress and anxiety actually comes from.”

Typicalreactions to disasters, according to the American Psychological Association,include intense, unpredictable feelings; disrupted eating and sleepingpatterns; physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, or chest pain; and more.According to Young, those effects can become even more pronounced in pregnantwomen.

“Manypregnant women are already stressed, right?” says Young. “Then they can’t drinkthe water, but maybe they already did and then they’re even more stressed. Weknow that can affect fetal development and sometimes trigger premature labor.”

Thepsychological toll on residents doesn’t include the potential health effects ofexposure to MCHM, which, as Lesher explains, is essentially unknown. “Theresponse was to flush out the water, wait until the concentration of MCHM wentdown to one milligram per liter, and then lift the ban,” she says. “Thatdecision was based only on lethality. It didn’t take into considerationlong-term effects, such as cancer.”

Lesher,however, trusts that MCHM is probably safe at one milligram per liter. “Thestructure of MCHM is similar to other organic chemicals that have been testedat greater lengths. It’s not likely to be terribly carcinogenic or toxic.”

Young and Lesher both agree that measures shouldbe taken to make sure spills like this don’t happen again. They recommend morereadily available access to chemicals’ basic toxicity levels and better safetymeasures for containment mechanisms. “You need to be able to say, for certain,that your drinking water is safe. There are a lot of ways to make that happen,without necessarily having to rely on regulation,” says Lesher. The results ofproactive efforts could have far-reaching benefits for residents of anyarea—for today and the future generations.