Clueless on chemicals: "No data available"
We now return to West Virginia, where the chemical spill story is far from over. The dearth of information about the coal-washing chemical known as Crude MCHM shows what can happen when government punts on protecting its own citizens. Consider this a cautionary tale about the evils of non-regulation, because when it comes to chemicals, we are all West Virginians.
A few days after the quintessentially named Freedom Industries spilled its 7500 gallons into the Elk River, just a mile upstream from a public water facility, public officials tried to calm the 300,000 affected citizens by insisting that their water was safe to drink again. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent word that Crude MCHM was safe at a low level, roughly one part per million. The crisis mood began to ease in the greater Charleston area - until last week, when the CDC amended itself and essentially said:
"Um, folks, you know what? Pregnant women shouldn't drink the water at all, until the chemical is totally gone."
And then a doctor from the West Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics surfaced publicly and essentially said: "Um, folks, you know what? If you've got small children at home, they shouldn't drink the water at all, either."
How come the government couldn't give people a straight answer? How come people don't trust the answer they got? Because the government really doesn't have a clue about the chemical. Its one-part-per-million exposure estimate was just a best guess. It had never tested the chemical for toxicity, nor had it required the chemical manufacturer to conduct extensive tests. And that's no surprise, because MCHM is merely one of 62,000 untested chemicals on the market today. These chemicals are presumed innocent until they're found to be guilty - and even then, we're clueless about the degree of guilt. Thanks to a dearth of federal oversight, this is how we roll.
We don't know what we don't know. Which is why West Virginia's Democratic governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, sounded like such a fool on Monday when he said, "I'm not a scientist, you know....I'm not going to say absolutely 100 percent that everything is safe. If you do not feel comfortable (drinking the water), don't use it. It's your decision."
It's your decision...Wow. Isn't freedom awesome?
Turns out, the CDC's one-part-per-million exposure estimate was inspired by the one study ever conducted on the chemical. Eastman Chemical, the company that manufactures MCHM, ran some cursory tests of its own. This was 23 years ago. The unpublished study was never peer-reviewed by independent scientific experts, and, needless to say, it has...how shall I charitably put it...a few knowledge gaps.
The study, which has now surfaced publicly, is replete with the phrase "no data available." Like, for instance, if you wanted to know whether it was tested for any cancer-causing properties, the answer is "no data available." If you wanted to know about its toxicity potential from repeated doses, the answer is "no data available." In fact, that answer pops up 152 times.
(Meanwhile, Freedom Industries disclosed this week that a second chemical - known by the acronym PPH - spilled into the river as well. The amount of spillage was reportedly small, but here's my favorite line from the local newspaper story: "A Freedom Industries data sheet...says no data are available on its long-term health effects.")
Well, this is what happens when government doesn't do its job, when few elected leaders in either party demand that government do its job. The relevant federal oversight law, enacted 38 years ago, has more holes than a slab of Jarlsberg cheese, and virtually nobody in Washington has cited the West Virginia spill as proof that chemical cluelessness is hazardous to our health. President Obama hasn't uttered a peep, and House Speaker John Boehner has jerked his knee and said we already have enough regulations.
Forget regulations, we don't even have basic information about the stuff that's out there. A proposed Senate bill, known as the Safe Chemicals Act, would actually require manufacturers to prove the safety of their chemicals before they go on the market (thus providing health officials with basic info during an emergency), but we all know that the prospects for congressionally-enacted reform are roughly equivalent to the odds of Justin Bieber opening a driver's ed school.
Deborah Blum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, says it best: "Where’s the outcry demanding that we actually invest in research that would provide the information we so desperately needed this time - and will undoubtedly need again?....By that I mean a richer database, a more transparent information system, and, yes, an update of our embarrassingly antiquated regulation of all things poisonous? Unless this is really what we want: the cheap solution, the get-what-you-pay-for ignorance and apathy..."
And speaking of ignorance, here's a question for all the regulation-hating ideologues who think the spill was no big deal: If you were handed a glass of MCHM-tainted water, and told that pregnant women and little kids were being advised not to drink it, would you drink it? Come on now, biiiig swallow.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1