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WV Chemical Spill Points to Needed Regulation
Kathy Attar, MPH
January 16, 2014
On January 10 in Charleston, WV, community members were told their water was contaminated with an industrial chemical used in coal processing. The chemical seeped from a ruptured storage tank into the Elk River, just upstream from the intakes pipes for the regional water company.
Officials in WV and now in Kentucky are struggling to determine how much danger the little-known chemical, MCHM, or 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, poses to the health of area residents. Some 300,000 Charleston-area residents were issued a "do not use" water advisory.
Special tests had to be developed to track the chemicals toxicity and determine a safe level. Additionally, the one part per million safe exposure (1ppm) level issued by officials was determined with very little information. The manufacturer's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that regulators are using as their primary source lacks any information about chronic health impacts.
It is also unclear whether the 1ppm level captures either acute or chronic health effects from ongoing exposure to water contaminated at this exposure level.
This industrial accident highlights a key flaw in our current system of chemical regulation in the U.S. The chemical that contaminated West Virginia's Elk River is one among tens of thousands of industrial compounds that are on the market today without any publicly available hazard or safety data.
The law governing chemicals in products, Toxic Substance Control Act or TSCA, passed in 1976, "grandfathered in" thousands of chemicals like the one contaminating West Virginians' water, allowing them to be marketed without requiring any safety testing on them. As a result we know very little about whether these chemicals are harmful to our health.
PSR is working with a coalition of organizations to update TSCA, require chemical companies to test their chemicals before putting them on the market, and inform the public if they may be hazardous to health. Learn more about PSR's key principles for chemical policy reform.
Take Action: Tell your senators we need real reform of TSCA »