Is the Water Safe? The West Virginia Chemical Spill and the Importance of Scientists’ Speaking to the Media

, Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy | January 21, 2014, 10:07 am EDT
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When news broke last week that West Virginia’s Elk River had been contaminated with the coal-processing chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), attention quickly turned to the scientists who could help the public understand what was at stake. With the spill just upstream of a treatment plant supplying water to 300,000 West Virginians, the questions were pressing: What was known about MCHM? Is my health and that of my family and pets at risk? Should I worry about the odor? These questions and many more arose from citizens, reporters, and decision makers. But as the event unfolded, we saw that scientists weren’t always given a chance to answer them.

When the spill happened, scientists and other technical experts worked quickly to understand what public health risks were posed by the release. Scientists working for industry, West Virginia health and environmental agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scrambled to assess what we knew about this chemical.

The Elk River in West Virginia serves as a drinking water source for 9 counties. After the chemical spill, affected citizens looked to scientists and government officials to know what public health risks they faced. Photo: Flickr/Vicky TGAW

The Elk River in West Virginia serves as a drinking water source for nine counties. After the chemical spill, affected citizens looked to scientists and government officials to know what public health risks they faced. Photo: Flickr/Vicky TGAW

But conflicting messages between officials at these different institutions over time, led to stress, confusion, and fear for many in affected areas. West Virginia residents were told their water was safe to drink, only to subsequently be told by state health officials that pregnant women should drink bottled water. Citizens were told by West Virginia officials and West Virginia American Water that there was no concern about odor, but later learned that the CDC had advised flushing plumbing sources until the chemical odor could no longer be detected.

Some reporters worked to figure out what went wrong. Why the conflicting messages? Some scientific experts reported that scientists never knew much about the chemical and there were lots of uncertainties in the health risk assessment. But why hadn’t the public heard this message from the start?

In times of emergencies — especially when the public health and safety may be at risk — it is essential that we let scientists speak. In situations like these, accurate and timely information needs to get to the public and allowing scientists to speak to the media without prior clearance from public affairs or other officials can allow for more comprehensive information to reach those who need it. Public affairs officers can play a coordinating role and can be informed of scientists’ communication to the media and public, but they should not act as gatekeepers that compromise our ability to understand the threats that citizens face.

To be fair, we also need to make sure a clear and consistent message gets out. Conflicting instructions during emergency response can hamper response and confuse the public. But when it comes to health and safety, we need to make sure that people hear from the experts. In this case, hearing from more experts might have prevented much of the confusion, fear, and distrust that we say in the chemical spill’s aftermath.

UCS has worked for many years to ensure that scientists, especially those at federal agencies, can speak to the media and the public. We’ve worked to improve agency communications policies and social media policies, and to change agency culture such that the default is openness, rather than closing ranks. Many times the impact of transparency seems intangible, but the events of the past two weeks illustrate just how much it matters. Scientists need the freedom to share both what they know and what they don’t know as soon as they are asked. Their expertise is vital in the case of West Virginia chemical spill and for science-based issues everywhere.

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  • Lloyd Goding

    Thanks for the analysis. One problem I see with this particular disaster is that it is likely this foul smelling compound is much less dangerous than many and the public needs to somehow be informed that some compounds are substantially worse than others. Such as distinction might lessen ‘chemophobia’ or it might be viewed as self serving minimizing by the scientific world. Lack of data makes it easy to assume the worst, of course.

    • Lloyd, Thanks for your thoughts on this. I think you’re right that the situation and lack of information available made it challenging for the public to distinguish between what was a public health concern and what wasn’t. People were unsure about the public health concerns associated with the chemical smell and they understandably weren’t trusting of the (sometimes) conflicting information provided to them about this.

      This issue was actually one of the challenges that a team of scientists from the University of South Alabama were hoping to address when they drove up to West Virginia to test affected residents’ tap water and provide scientific information to the public in the spill’s aftermath. Their help was much needed. I wrote about their efforts here:

  • John W. Aldis, MD

    Those are all good questions.

    The confusion has been far-reaching; I’ve received several panic-tinged e-mails from friends and colleagues in China asking about my health and well-being in this obvious (to them) ecological catastrophe. (I live in Shepherdstown, but “West Virginia” seemed close enough to raise their concerns.)

    I don’t have much to add to the excellent discussion but perhaps to add that scientific or medical support (knowledge, experience, “wisdom”) often has to pass through a fairly torturous path between the experts in Atlanta or Washington, DC, and the local populations in the western reaches of our state. A knowledgable scientist in a remote research center is often simply not allowed to give an opinion about a “local” problem. These “rules” are sometimes set aside an in an obvious catastrophe (say, a terrorist attack or a massive hurricane, etc.), but when the problem is considered “local” the scientists in the remote research centers do not get directly involved unless their assistance is requested by local scientists and other public health authorities. There are actually some good reasons for this, but the end result is often the sort of confusion we saw in this case.

    While I can understand why this wisdom was not forthcoming regarding this rather obscure chemical, it was still (to me) disappointing. The near hysteria (Youtube videos of flaming tap water, press reports showing only the worst-case guesses about what was going on, etc.) was difficult for me (and my friends in China) to watch.

    You titled your note “Is the Water Safe?” You could just have well titled it, “Is the Water Dangerous?”

    • Dr. Aldis,

      Thanks for your thoughts on this. I appreciate hearing your perspective on these issues. As you note there are a few barriers that inhibit scientists who are knowledgeable on the topic from contributing publicly. There are rules that prevent some scientists from speaking, however, even off-the-record background conversations between reporters and scientists can help reporters understand the science and policy and in turn aid in getting better information to the public. In cases of local emergencies, it is especially important that expertise is shared with those who need it.