The Chemicals We Don’t Know: is West VA’s Chemical Spill Just The Tip Of The Iceberg?

Five and a half weeks after a chemical spill in West VA and we still don’t know much about the chemical, Crude MCHM, that has alarmed officials in the state and increasingly, across the country. What little we do know gives a false sense of security: used to process coal, MCHM is made up almost entirely of the chemical called 4-methylcyclohexanemethol. It is listed in the Toxnet chemical database of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a skin, eye, and respiratory system irritant. The CDC conducted a study that recommended 1ppm (part per million) for safe levels of MCHM in drinking water (as of a week ago, the group Appalachian Voices’ Appalachian Water Watch reported that levels of MCHM just near the site of the spill was 1.130 ppm).

This recommendation, and the implication that it MCHM is now undergoing intense evaluation, may be giving some people a false sense of security. In a January 14th interview with NPR radio host Diane Rehm, Daniel Horowitz, Managing Director of the US Chemical Safety Board, an independent agency that investigates industrial spills, revealed what most people don’t realize: there are some 80,000-100,000 chemicals being used globally in industry right now, but we have toxicological information on very few of these. The recommendations that have been hastily offered for drinking water levels in response to the West VA spill are based on incomplete evidence about a largely unknown chemical in response to public and official pressure to come up with something that can begin to allay people’s fears and avoid mass panic.

The unprecedented spillage of Crude MCHM reveals a simple, but alarming fact: without more research into the tens of thousands of chemicals currently used in industry (let alone the thousands more that come into commercial use each year), and in the absence of tougher chemical safety regulations and enforcement mechanisms, we will be unable to cope with the increasing human health costs of exposure to harmful chemicals in our daily lives. The spillage of MCHM into West VA’s Elk River and its virtually unknown long-term human health costs is only an indication of more to come.

Part of the problem is with existing chemical safety standards and regulatory controls. The EPA is influenced by industry lobbies: the coal mining industry is only one such lobby that has biased the ways in which the EPA sets standards for chemical usage. (Last summer, Appalachian Voices charged the EPA with allowing loopholes for the discharge of selenium in drinking water through coal mining processes. Selenium has been shown to bio-accumulate in aquatic life, leading to deformities and reproductive disorders in aquatic animals). Aside from this, the EPA’s oversight mechanisms are weak, the agency does not have enough resources (or time) to investigate the health effects of new chemicals from the period of their introduction until they are put into use by industry, and its information systems remain insecure and vulnerable to attack.

To top it all off, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) on which the EPA relies for creating reporting, testing, regulation, and record-keeping requirements for industry has not been updated since 1976. It has been amended since then, but the lack of an updated TCSA has prevented the EPA from being able to test, restrict, or even ban the vast majority of chemicals in use today. It has also enabled manufacturers to keep the ingredients in some chemicals hidden, and placed the burden of proof on the government to prove that any chemical is harmful to environmental and/or human health, rather than requiring manufacturers to prove that their chemicals are safe.

At a time when even China has begun respond to public and international pressure to seriously address the problems with its industrial polluters, we do much better than this.

As consumer, you may have assumed that the government (particularly the EPA) regulates the use of chemicals in the products you purchase. If so, you are mistaken – the government is able to regulate only a very small percentage of chemicals, and it is only when there is a problem, as the chemical spill in the Elk River reveals, that the EPA and other regulatory bodies will take action. This reactive, rather than proactive stance means that the damage has already been done to communities, likely for years to come, when the problem becomes public knowledge. This is why advocacy, not only on the part of our elected officials, but by ordinary citizens, is so important.

Since last fall, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been actively engaged in the process of working to fix the TCSA. It was last fall that Senate Bill S.1009, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA), was introduced. The Bill is aimed at promoting safer use, monitoring, and regulation of chemicals in the United States. It has attracted not only bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate, but also a coalition that includes environmental advocacy groups, state and national labor organizations, former senior EPA officials, small manufacturers across the U.S., and almost 100 industry associations. This would seem to go a long way in remedying the problems with our current outdated legislation and regulatory mechanisms. Some have criticized the CSIA as not going far enough, and worse, have projected that it would in fact hamstring the EPA, making regulation and testing even more difficult, while others have said that despite the flaws in its current state, Congress can make improvements to the bill that would give it more teeth than the current TSCA, while also fixing some of the TSCA’s major problems.

So what can you do to help support better, stronger chemical safety standards and the elimination of harmful chemicals from the products we use and are exposed to every day?

First, you can inform yourself. Learn more about the progress of the CSIA by using this tracker. Second, support those organizations that are working to reform the TCSA and improve the CSIA, like the Breast Cancer Fund. Third, lend your voice to support campaigns that have been working towards the passage of the CSIA. There are links to a few of these campaigns under the “Campaigns and Calls to Action” pull-down menu under the “Take Action!” link on the homepage.

Most important, you can educate yourself and stop buying those products that contain harmful chemicals that are likely to damage your health. Until we have legislative tools in place that will truly protect consumers, enable regulatory bodies to do their jobs, and stop protecting manufacturers who choose to expose consumers to chemical toxins known and suspected, self-education is our best weapon.

Click here to join my mailing list and keep abreast of developments state, national, and international campaigns for safer chemicals and healthier families.