CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On a relatively warm day in the middle of a cold winter spell Jan. 9, the Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk River forever changed the perception of the water for 300,000 residents across nine counties in West Virginia.
The chemical called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol or MCHM polluted our water, our water system, and, probably worst, our trust in the safety of the water that we drink, cook with and use to bathe our children.
We wonder if the water pouring out of our taps is safe to drink and fear its immediate and future impact not only on us but on our most vulnerable populations such as our children, elderly and those with compromised health conditions. The insidious smell of licorice associated with MCHM has permeated our psyches as well as our water.
It is imperative we begin to look for a way forward, even though there are questions to be answered and problems to be solved.
Our state Legislature is considering SB 373, a bill to protect our water sources. Before that bill becomes law, it must contain language that allows for an active partnership involving local and state officials. The direct involvement of autonomous Local Boards of Health in this legislation is imperative. All our citizens -- corporate and otherwise -- respond more quickly and have more confidence in those people with whom they deal with on a daily basis. While each county cannot promulgate its own rules, this legislation must envision a system of regulation that relinquishes the traditional silos of state and local governments when it comes to protecting our people.
Local officials -- particularly select local health departments across the state -- must be provided an opportunity to collaboratively work with state Departments of Environmental Protection and Health to ensure that regulations are being properly enforced.
To regain public confidence and trust, we should immediately begin a medical monitoring program to measure if there are any long-term health effects of the chemical spill. While this should have been already started, there must not be any further delay. This program will study the physical and mental health impacts of the chemical spill, provide a comprehensive health assessment and should include surveillance systems for evaluating that care.
It is important to note that the current limited evaluations undertaken by officials will simply not be able to establish whether harm has occurred in our exposed population in the long-term. The cause and effect cannot be established for a specific condition in an individual case and only a study of the entire population of the area can permit such a determination.
Local health departments, with their expertise in population health, can, with proper directive through SB 373, begin baseline evaluation and expand services as federal resources become available. While not inexpensive, such a monitoring program will illustrate to the citizens in the nine affected counties that their elected officials understand their apprehension and are taking positive, medically-indicated steps to ensure their future health.
Finally, it is critical that the Legislature include in SB 373 the outstanding U.S. Chemical and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) recommendation following the 2008 Bayer Crop Sciences plant explosion that killed two people. This evidence-based recommendation requires my agency to establish an industry-funded Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program with the assistance from State Departments of Environmental Protection and Health. This is the best chance at reasonable regulation conducted by professional experts at the local level without enduring further taxpayer burden.
The crisis we have endured for the past month is going to become part of our lives for years to come. Decisions made in a vacuum, which often occur in the first hours and days of any crisis, and our 24-hour news cycle with its troubling video of polluted, smelly water flowing from the water taps of our homes and schools, has cast a pall over West Virginia's majesty and beauty. As sure as these chemicals polluted the Elk River, they polluted the perception of our state in the eyes of the nation and the world.
The current water crisis has been an event of historical proportion. Let's do everything in our power and ability to manage this crisis now and vow to never let this type of event ever happen again.Gupta is the health officer and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County health departments.