Last year 10,000 gallons of a relatively unknown chemical substance, crude MCHM, poisoned the drinking water of approximately 300,000 residents in the Kanawha Valley Region of West Virginia. Although officials began clearing residents to use the water within a matter of days, the chemical and related issues continued to persist for weeks and in some cases months. Several businesses committed to using bottled water in meal prep, as they wanted to ensure consumer confidence. There was a big piece to the “safe conversation” last year in the aftermath of the chemical spill. Many people either directly experienced health issues that were not being considered or were vocal about the failure to consider inhalation exposure from crude MCHM. In the beginning, no one considered whether there were issues with the excessive flushing of crude MCHM through hot water versus cold water. No one considered the possibility that people could have reactions or contraindications from exposure while showering.
The State level public health response was disastrous. The former Bureau of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Tierney refused to do air quality testing and ignored all reports of symptoms. Despite children and school employees fainting, despite reports of continued issues from running warm or hot water, then Bureau of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Tierney found no need to reconsider the flush protocols or do testing of people’s houses. Officials were so quick to throw around the phrase “out of an abundance of caution” and words such as “safe” and “usable” but exercised very little concern for individual experiences and difficulties given the anecdotal information reported on a daily basis.
After all, aside from very limited animal studies done by a manufacturer of pure MCHM (not the proprietary blend used by the company responsible for the spill), there was no information of exposure in humans. Although a “safe” level was developed for exposure, based on questionable methodology at best, there was no consideration given to potential inhalation risk. The sole focus was on ingestion only. Officials could only say that the chemical had a “lower” odor threshold. Empty words meant to pacify people who demanded accountability. Other officials would try to equate the dwindling presence of crude MCHM to a drop of peroxide (or some other substance) in a swimming pool. This enraged many of us even more. It didn’t take a scientist to know that even a single drop of the right chemical compound can contaminate a large quantity. Also, these statements continued to ignore the connection between heat and this chemical. People using showers reported feeling dizzy and light-headed. Others, such as myself had upper respiratory issues. By mid February 2014, I had bronchitis twice and was ultimately diagnosed with adult onset asthma. While chemical exposure cannot be conclusively identified as the cause, I had severe reactions after exposure to fumes when “flushing” my house. These problems occured despite opening the windows. I never had bronchitis or asthma until after chemical inhalation exposure during “flushing.” There were days when my chest would burn. I could not even walk from my office building downtown to the parking lot across the street to my car, without needing my newly prescribed inhaler.
I wasn’t alone in my concerns. Well over 2,000 called poison control after we were told to flush. But like Dr. Tierney, poison control simply wrote of the symptoms as something else. Countless others posted to social media about what they experienced. And still others just sucked it up and dealt with the new normal, because our leadership said everything was ok. In the discussion about health effects of the spill, Dr. Tierney continuously referred to the 500+ people who went to the emergency room or urgent care, but never counted people who saw their family doctors. The number affected was greater than acknowledged. There were even more people who would post symptoms to various Facebook groups (including Friends of Water) reporting continued symptoms. Yet in January and February 2014 there was not one State or Federal entity prepared to handle, assist, or engage with concerned citizens regarding health issues and residuals from “flushing.” Approximately three months after the spill, the EPA decided it would look into potential inhalation risk.
While not solely due to the water crisis and failed public health response, I left West Virginia in June 2014. By the time we moved we still did no use the water for cooking or drinking. By March/April 2014 we were able to shower in warm water again. I did not have family in the area, but I was lucky to have friends outside of the affected region who let us wash clothes and shower. Not everyone was able to afford bottled water, or the travel to another area to take care of the basics.
A recent study highlights the failure of the CDC to consider potential inhalation from exposure to the crude MCHM mixture. While it is true that officials relied on the CDC for guidance on “safe”, once people continued to have issues after the all clear State officials should have LISTENED to the people instead of telling us it was anxiety etc. Dr. Tierney refused to listen to people and their concerns. The Water Company was our only recourse for continued exposure issues despite the fact that they were the LAST entity we should have been relying upon for an issue pertaining to Health, Safety, and Well-being!!!! People received different information depending upon who they talked to and the day they called. Water company customer service agents were woefully unprepared for the calls. Water company technicians were making it up as they went along, providing people with updated flush protocols based on “experience.” No one ever took the time to reconsider whether the protocols initially given at the beginning of the flush were actually “safe.” No one cared whether it actually worked. There were several local and community members who stepped up in the aftermath and pushed the dialogue on many of these issues, including the issue of what was “safe” in terms of our water.
While we should not dwell on the past, we cannot forget this experience. Reflecting on the triumphs and challenges can help to improve public health responses to threats to our chemical safety long-term. For me, the most valuable lesson is that we have to continue to trust our instincts and demand Federal and State leaders listen to us. In the absence of empirical data, significant anecdotal evidence existed to address issues with the public health response but was simply ignored. Sustainable coordinated action within our communities can bring about change, but we must continue to advocate on behalf of ourselves and others despite opposition from the powers that be.