West Virginia Spill: A Big Fail for Science Communication

Is the water safe to drink? It seems such a simple question. Yet the people of West Virginia have been given no easy answers. Lax chemical regulation is the ultimate cause – but poor science communication, particularly on the part of public officials, has made matters worse.

First, the background: on January 9, a substance called crude MCHM spilled from a Freedom Industries facility into the Elk River. Officials declared the local water unsafe for any use other than flushing the toilet, and this guidance remained in place for several days.

Now, a month later, public officials seem confused as to what they should be saying.

Everybody has a different definition of safe,” said Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, according to USA Today. “I believe the water, based on the standards we have, is usable.”

(Note that Al Jazeera’s version of that second sentence sounds a little more positive: “You know, I believe the water, based on the standards we have, is usable for every purpose, and that includes drinking, bathing and cooking.”)

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sent its own mixed messages, first advising that pregnant women not use the water, then saying all residents can drink and bathe in the water (although an advisory based on the earlier guidance is still up on a state website, The Nation says).

Meanwhile, residents are understandably confused and untrusting. Many say they’re still not drinking the water, and many also complain that it retains the licorice smell associated with the spilled chemicals.

Why is it so hard to say if the water is safe? First and foremost, because we really don’t know for sure. The better reporting and analysis has looked into what studies we have on 4-MCHM (the primary component in crude MCHM – but more on this later), and it’s pretty scant. In fact, before the spill occurred, no one had determined a safe exposure limit for humans.

State officials have not been able to give a consistent and coherent story about how they came to the exposure limit of 1 part per million that they have been using since the spill. According to the Charleston Gazette – which ran a pretty exhaustive story on this – it was pretty much the work of one man, in one hour. And he based his estimate on one study that used just 40 rats, according to NRDC’s Jennifer Sass.

So far, so scary. It bears mentioning that the reason we don’t know much about MCHM – or the tens of thousands of other chemicals in use today – comes down to the US’s lax system of chemical regulation. Basically, there’s a catch-22 – the EPA won’t require studies unless the chemical is of concern, and it doesn’t know if the chemical is of concern without the studies.

But even keeping in mind how in-the-dark officials were here, the poor communication with the public is rather shocking. Agencies such as the CDC should know better than to send mixed messages on public health. Admittedly, explaining risk is difficult, especially given low levels of science literacy. But the on-again, off-again nature of agencies’ warnings will probably leave thousands of people forever distrustful of what they hear said in the name of public health.

As EDF senior scientist Richard Denison says, “This episode should serve as a case study in how not to handle both public health and public trust in the aftermath of a chemical spill.”

One final note: the media, as usual, bears at least some responsibility in this affair. I’d read about a dozen articles on the spill before I realized that Freedom Industries hadn’t spilled pure 4-MCHM – nomenclature which, as the chemically literate will know, denotes a single compound – but crude MCHM, which comprises seven chemicals. Again, the Charleston Gazette did good work on this – pointing out that the rat study in question only tested 4-MCHM.

More questions for public officials to answer – and please, this time, clearly.

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