The MCHM mystery

It’s hard to believe that in America today 300,000 residents in and around a state capital could find themselves without safe drinking water for days. But that’s what happened one year ago this month in Charleston, West Virginia when MCHM, a chemical used to wash coal, leaked from a storage tank adjacent to the Elk River. State officials issued “do not use” orders for tap water and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offered its best guidance on safe levels of MCHM in drinking water.

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WV National Guard test water lines after Elk River spill. Photo by WV National Guard

Yet in the days and weeks that followed, as water lines were flushed and tested, a frightened public grew even more dismayed: Almost a week after the spill, CDC and state officials revised their initial guideline downward, suggesting that pregnant women might want to avoid the water until MCHM levels were undetectable. Schools that had reopened after flushing their lines closed once again as students and staff smelled MCHM’s telltale licorice scent.

In my current feature for The Observer of Jefferson County, I explore why public health officials know so little about this commonly-used industrial chemical – and tens of thousands of other chemicals used daily around the country. The problem isn’t limited to West Virginia. It starts with gaping holes in the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, affecting communities around the country. You can read my feature here.

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