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Lynn R. Goldman and Melissa J. Perry: A safer tomorrow

By Melissa J. Perry

Two months after an industrial chemical spill into the Elk River contaminated the public water supply for about 300,000 people, the public is left with a series of troubling questions and the urgent need for some answers.

Public health officials still cannot assess the full health impact of human exposure to the chemicals involved in the spill. Along with this lack of basic information there have been conflicting public health messages and ongoing concern about the safety of the drinking water.

The situation that led to the West Virginia spill on Jan. 9 was complex, involving a series of state and federal regulatory failures and other problems that led to the initial crisis and a less than ideal public health response.

The do-not-use order was lifted by Jan. 14, but a day later the CDC urged pregnant women to continue to drink bottled water until testing showed no detectable levels of MCHM. The CDC did the right thing, but the timing of the announcement - after some pregnant women had presumably drunk the water - stirred up the fear that the public health response was not robust.

We were not privy to inside information on how the West Virginia spill unfolded or what was done to contain the problem and reassure the public. Yet, clearly the crisis points to regulatory and enforcement gaps that should be addressed to protect Charleston and other communities from a future crisis.

First, chemicals in commerce should be tested and communities need information about the hazards and quantities of substances stored and used, especially those that are located near vulnerable populations.

Second, the nation needs tougher regulations to ensure that chemical storage tanks are inspected routinely. Some states have regular inspections in place and others do not. West Virginia did not inspect this particular storage tank for years prior to the spill.

Third, the nation needs a better emergency response system for accidents involving potentially toxic chemicals. First responders to an incident should be equipped with the tools to protect their own health. And public health officials should be charged with keeping the community well informed and safe. Bringing in public responders for a toxic chemical spill should be just as automatic as it would be for an epidemic.

Finally, policymakers must reform a law known as the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was passed in 1976 to protect the public from potentially harmful chemicals. At the time thousands of substances already in use were deemed safe and grandfathered in and MCHM was one of those chemicals.

Consequently, when public health officials were confronted with the West Virginia spill they had no definitive tests on how this chemical or the crude mix might affect humans.

In fact, under the current law industries do not have to test chemicals to prove they are safe before they are used. Any reform in federal law must include this provision so that public officials can identify toxic chemicals and ban them - before they are in widespread use.

Those solutions would help us build a better system, one that would prevent future spills and protect the public water supply in Charleston and in communities nationwide.

Goldman is a pediatrician, former official for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the dean of the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. Perry is an epidemiologist and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

 


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