Fear And Loathing In West Virginia

Coffee shop owner Jason Baldwin spent $1,500 last week to replace all the filters in his reverse osmosis machine. Baldwin said that repairing his barista filtration system was the biggest expense he's had following the Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk River on January 9th. But Baldwin is paying $300 per week for bottled water, so depending on how long the water seems unsafe, his water bill may eclipse his repair bills as well as any lost income.

Baldwin explained that after the unthinkable happens and toxic chemicals find their way to a community's fresh water supply, people who once trusted the system will never trust it again. He fears that after the recent second spill, "no one will be comfortable with our water going forward for drinking purposes."

While many Kanawha Valley West Virginians experience disbelief and a generalized panic over their water quality, Baldwin has tangible evidence contributing to his concern. Once he realized there was enough 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (4MCHM) in his tap water to burn holes through his Cirqua brand filtration system, he concluded even diluted levels are probably not safe for humans. As an added precaution - and to allay the fears of his customers - Baldwin's using bottled water to wash the dishes at the Moxxee Coffee Shop.

This may sound like overkill, but it's hard to tell when scientists know as little about the chemical as lay people do. That, however, is beginning to change. University of Southern Alabama (USA) researchers just received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Rapid Response Research grant to find out just how much 4MCHM might be absorbed by and redistributed by plastics.

While waiting for science to answer questions for 300,000 West Virginians, restaurants, clinics, and other water-based businesses -- those that can afford the cost of bottled water -- will likely outlast this crisis. Some restaurateurs, like Meena Anada, who owns Little India with her husband Harish, may use bottled water forever.

"We are going to do what ever it takes to make people comfortable," she said. "It might be our all-time norm now to use bottled water."

The cost of doing business in Charleston has gone way up for the Anadas. Harish Anada said that without their home equity loan they couldn't have handled it. In addition to the restaurant they own a small grocery.

"People had no water so people weren't cooking," he said. "People weren't cooking so people weren't shopping. We threw away all the food we had prepared at the restaurant because it was made with tainted water. Then we had to throw away the perishable food here [at the restaurant] and at the grocery store. We were closed for five days. When we re-opened we had to start all over. We had to hire contractors to change and flush our filters. And now we have to buy water too."

Harish Anada chuckled good-naturedly. "We have more water in our refrigerators now than we have food."

The Anadas had one more concern.

"Our employees could not work," he said. "We could not pay them what they missed but we tried to pay them something. Thank goodness we had our equity loan."

There is a sign at the buffet in Little India that reads, "Please obtain a clean plate or bowl upon each return to the food bar by order of the Kanawha-Charleston health department." At a West Virginia House of Delegates public hearing Monday night -- regarding Senate Bill 373, which would regulate above ground chemical storage tanks like the one that leaked thousands of gallons of 4MCHM into the Elk River -- citizens asked the legislature to give local health departments jurisdiction over chemical tanks and their owners. Many who testified explained that they'd lost faith in state and federal regulatory agencies.

Using bottled water, changing regulating agencies: these actions might help the people of West Virginia going forward, but the lack of understanding about 4MCHM and the spill's aftereffects will require that more scientists conduct tests on 4MCHM that were never done before this spill.

Among those scientists working closer to the devastation, Jen Gallagher, a biologist at West Virginia University (WVU), has begun testing the effects of 4MCHM on individual cells.

WVU, USA and a handful of other universities are the first to accept the challenge of informing government agencies, the public, and even the industry itself of 4MCHM's potential for harm. No independent labs have ever tested 4MCHM. Prior to the spill, Eastman Chemical Company -- the manufacturer -- conducted the only tests that indicate what may be a lethal exposure.

In 1976 the Toxic Substances Control Act made legal 62,000 chemical compounds without testing them. Further, the act required no future testing based on the assumption, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum, "that these chemicals, which apparently hadn't killed anyone yet, were unlikely to do so."

If Baldwin, the Anadas, and hundreds of thousands of other West Virginians ever feel safe using their public water again, it'll be because scientists like Gallagher and her colleagues got to work understanding what kind of poison Freedom Industries leaked to the people and environment of West Virgina.