Lack of Accurate Scientific Information Causes Public Confusion in West Virginia's Recent Toxic Water Spill

Posted March 26, 2014

MP3 Interview with Andrew Whelton, assistant professor of civil engineering at South Alabama University, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Shortly after the leak of MCHM, a chemical used in coal processing, into the water supply of 300,000 West Virginians on Jan. 9, Andrew Whelton, an assistant professor of civil engineering at South Alabama University, drove with a graduate student 900 miles to Charleston to advise residents on how to flush their water systems to minimize contact with the chemical. He went as a volunteer, but because of his early efforts, he and a colleague, Jeffrey Rosen, president of Corona Environmental Consulting, were awarded a $750,000 state of West Virginia grant for the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project, or WVTAP.

Whelton put together a global team of experts to study various aspects of the disaster. Most people affected by the toxic contamination were still not using tap water for drinking, though many were using it for other purposes in the weeks and months after the Do Not Use order was lifted several days after the initial spill.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus, who spent several days in and around Charleston in early March, spoke with Whelton about his study, which he called historic. Here, he talks about the problems that resulted from a lack of scientific information that led both the state and the water utility to declare the chemical non-detectable at a certain level, although Whelton and his team were able to detect MCHM at far lower levels as they conducted studies of the water quality in 80 homes spread throughout the affected area.

ANDREW WHELTON: And these individuals didn't just do literature searches or read books and magazines and such just to put the information together. They also conducted experiments. We shipped the contaminant that was spilled into the river; we were able to get the actual chemical that was sequestered after it was spilled and we shipped that across the country to California to begin immediate odor testing of it to determine at what level you can smell it in water. We shipped it to Lancaster, Penn. and Monrovia, Calif. where they started characterizing it. The WVTAP team has started looking at the byproducts of how the different drinking water system chemicals interact with these chemicals were spilled because one of the concerns that we had upfront was that we knew everyone was looking for crude MCHM, which is a mixture of at least eight compounds, but many of the efforts had been focused on 4-MCHM, which is one of those eight compounds, and we know from basic and environmental chemistry and engineering that chemicals transform sometimes, in water treatment plants, into unintended byproducts. That has never been talked about by state officials or federal officials, and that is something that the scientific community has been asking for all along. There are many, many people have been sending me emails asking why hasn't the government considered looking at other compounds that were produced, and we have done that.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, Andrew Whelton, when you and your team report your findings, will you be able to say whether or not the water is safe? That's what everyone was waiting for when I was down there two weeks ago – they were waiting for the tests!

ANDREW WHELTON: What you're referring to is just a basic understanding that everybody has, including us: What are the chemical levels in the water – and are those acceptable – in terms of will they make me acutely sick or will they have chronic effects to not just me, but my children, my friend's baby, my elderly grandmother. I mean, these are the questions that people are asking, and they have every right to do so because I would be asking the same thing. The toxicology panel that the WV TAP program is convening will examine the available data to determine if the levels the state of West Virginia has instituted – the 10 parts per billion, or 10 ppb level for MCHM – are protective of public health. Next, they'll also look at the CDC's level of 1,000 parts per billion to see if that level was protective of public health. And I expect – I can't speak for the panel – but I expect they will make recommendations in terms of what other information should have been available to make certain determinations. Now, one of the major points that a lot of critics, including myself, make, was that at the very beginning a lot of the declarations that the water was safe to drink or that a certain level of chemical was acceptable, weren't really backed up with enough public scrutiny in terms of availability of knowledge and availability of data, and outside vetting. What we are doing is coming in through the expert panel and actually trying to determine if what happened in terms of what levels cause acute or chronic health effects, are valid.

What's important to recognize here – and I know, throughout this incident, everybody's been talking about parts per billion, PPB, or PPM [parts per million] – the fact of the matter is, the screening level that West Virginia set for its population is 10 parts per billion, and they did this because at the time, I do know, analytical laboratories could only get to 10 ppb, so they could only conclusively say that the chemical was present above 10 ppb. The odor results that Dr. Mike McGuire has come out with basically demonstrate that at very, very low levels you can still smell some type of odor in that water with crude MCHM in it, even if the water is determined safe to drink at 10 ppb.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Does that mean it really isn't safe, or people don't know?

ANDREW WHELTON: That's a great question. The odor is one component of it, mainly because throughout the incident, the state, as well as the utility, were declaring the chemical was not present – the chemical for MCHM was not present – at a certain level. So they'd say, it's non-detect at 10 ppb. Then the public would say, but my water smells like licorice and their response was, but it's non-detect at 10 ppb, or more recently, it's non-detect at 3 ppb. And somebody will say, but my water smells like licorice. Well, Dr. McGuire's work demonstrates that first of all, there's a messaging issue here, that just because you can't detect something doesn't mean it's not there, and it's not causing problems. which then raises by homeowners and somebody – me included – what's causing the odor and what concentration is it?

Find more information on the West Virginia chemical spill and lax regulation by visiting the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project at

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