The Science of “Safe” and Perceptive Relativity

Safe is a relative term.  What is “safe” is dependent upon our perceived experiences.  While the water may be “safe” for one family or neighborhood, others still have problems.  For close to three weeks, state officials have insisted the water here in the Kanawha Valley is “safe.”   While the “truth” can depend on several factors, there seems to be a lack of concern by the Governor and the State Health Official for reports of continued water quality and persisting health issues.

Nearly three weeks ago, my neighbors and I were cleared.  Our area turned blue on the map and we followed the flushing procedures as laid out by the water company.  The rush to flush has left many with various issues and health concerns which have been summarily dismissed by the Governor and the State Health Official. Most of us are not engineers, scientists, plumbers, water specialist, or environmental technicians.  We are just everyday people trying to make sense of all the information (a lot of it highly technical) to make good decisions for our families.  However, only one of us is the Governor.  Only one of us is the State Health Official.  Someone has to step up to the job at hand and lead.  Protecting the public is their job.  It is unacceptable for state officials to say well my water is fine I’m using it and so is my family, as if the rest of us who do not trust the safety of the water are suffering from mass hysteria.

West Virginia Residents Worry Water Isn’t Safe

Our issues and health ailments are written off as mere worry or lack of trust.  This is not just an issue of trust and confidence, there are serious problems from persistent chemical exposure and irritation.  When we report upper respiratory issues, malaise, headaches, difficulty breathing, or throat burning we are told that it is flu season or maybe there is just a virus going around.  When we notice dry skin, rashes, itching, or discoloration we are told it is similar to solar burn, or we are not used to using the water.  We are given a prescription and sent on our way.  It is just a short term issue.  No big deal.  What may be a simple acute issue which clears up easily in a few days, could pose residual issues for other people with preexisting conditions including those with compromised immune systems, asthma, and allergies.   Some people, such as myself, are experiencing acute health issues for the first time ever.  Equations, formulas and scientific experiments, and data extrapolation to develop a “safe standard” at times need to be balanced with personal accounts.  We need to be documenting everything.  The more evidence we have the better we can sort out the unknowns.

To discount anecdotal evidence of potential chemical irritation is irresponsible, given the many unknowns of exposure to crude MCHM. What is considered safe should be a fluid concept open to correction and integration as we acquire more information.  At this point there are too many unknowns and several variables which have not been considered.  State officials have failed to respond to issues with the filters at the water treatment facility, differences in the pipe system, and the possibility that crude MCHM is lingering in our pipes and hot water tank to name a few.  While people in one area may view their water as “safe” or acceptable, it is possible that differences in elevation and pipe layout (including “dead end” pipes) could cause continued problems for others.  WCHS ran a story about a Fort Hill family’s concerns of their water.  In response, the water company stated there were “a lot of dead ends in the water lines, making it more difficult to flush the system.”[1]  State officials need to acknowledge the differences and complexities in the system and reevaluate their approach to “lingering concerns.”

“We don’t know what the long-term effects are, and that’s part of our mission at public health, is to follow this, so we do this every day,” she said. “I think we’ve been really honest about this — there really are no long-term studies available, so we have to start.”[2]

While it is great the Governor has reached out to the CDC for on the ground help (several weeks later), willful ignorance of a looming public health crisis is unconscionable. There is a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Instead of putting the people and rising questions and concerns first, the Governor and our State Health Officer are still refusing to acknowledge there is a problem.  You cannot admit there are unknowns and then say that everything is “safe.”  We need to make sure we are monitoring medical concerns regardless of where people were seen.  At some point those in our highest offices need to take a stand for the people they are supposed to serve and protect.  Someone has to take responsibility and make the hard decisions we need to get the answers we deserve.

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2 thoughts on “The Science of “Safe” and Perceptive Relativity

  1. Pingback: Elk River Chemical Spill One Year Later – A Failure in State and Federal Public Health Response | Mama Justice

  2. eyesonly11

    Reblogged this on Mama Justice and commented:
    Given the recent study regarding the failure to consider inhalation exposure in the aftermath of last year’s chemical spill, we should discuss how we determine what is “safe.”

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