From January 9 to 18, hundreds of thousands of West Virginia residents could not drink, bathe, or come in contact with their plumbed water. The culprit: 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), a chemical we apparently know very little about. The NSF hopes to remedy that knowledge gap and has awarded three Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grants to study the MCHM leak in W.Va.
MCHM is used to clean coal, and up to 7,500 gallons of it leaked out of a storage tank into a river that provides water for the Charleston community and the surrounding eight counties—about 15 percent of the state. Due to antiquated toxic substance regulations, which shockingly do not require the chemical manufacturer for a proof-of-safety before use, the threat of such a leak to human safety has been left to guess work. "We don't know that the water is not safe, but we can't say that it is safe," said West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre, in a Wall Street Journal article following the spill.
Not only are its human health effects plainly unknown but its environmental effects "in the wild" also are hazy. One of the RAPID grant recipients, Andrew Whelton's group at University of South Alabama, will study the fate of contaminated plastic piping, which, in addition to plumbing, can permeate into homes in the form of ice makers, refrigerators and dishwashers. Their study will include possible remediation of those contaminated materials.
Jennifer Weidhaas's group at West Virginia University will investigate the extent of contamination in the drinking water and the surrounding river systems and analyze the water treatment infrastructure so that it may be improved and events like this prevented. The third principal investigator, Andrea Dietrich at Virginia Tech, will more deeply examine the chemical properties of MCHM, what happens to it in water, and when it comes into contact with water-bearing objects and surfaces in one's home.
It's great that the government is taking initiative where chemical companies have not, but it may not be enough. The three RAPID grants afford a total of $150,000 for one year, which does not even cover some of the essentials for doing this research, explains Whelton on his lab's website. This funding "does not include a field drinking water sampling component," says Whelton, who is raising money to be able to travel to W.Va. and collect these drinking samples. "No State or Federal organization has conducted in-home drinking water testing despite declaring the water safe inside affected homes," Whelton observes.
The federal government is also funding preventative research measures as well as considering more thorough legislation to regulate toxic chemicals uses, which may or may not reflect an effective strategy. I will elaborate on this in my next blog.