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What We Can Learn From West Virginia

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On January 9, more than 7,500 gallons of a chemical used to process coal – crude MCHM – spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River at a facility owned by Freedom Industries.

For days, 300,000 people were without water, and 122 area residents went to local hospitals complaining of nausea, skin and eye irritation. Local water authorities warned the public to avoid using tap water in any way. The governor declared a state of emergency. With more than a quarter of the state’s population affected by the spill, the leak was absolutely devastating to the region. We at EWG express our concern for those affected, and we can’t help but point out that this disaster underscores the very real need for chemical regulation reform.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the storage facility on the Elk River that stored crude MCHM hadn’t been visited by environmental regulators since 1991. Local emergency response personnel had no idea that the chemical was being stored just upriver from the area’s largest water-treatment plant. This is in no way unusual. Across the country, regional and federal authorities have de-emphasized chemical safety, and toxic chemical regulations are largely toothless. Meanwhile, recent attempts to update outdated federal toxic chemical safety laws have fallen far short of the mark, proposing to limit the power of states to create stronger protections than the Environmental Protection Agency requires and ignoring the effects of toxic chemicals on children and infants.

What do we know about MCHM? Virtually nothing: no studies on its effects on human health, very little information about its toxicity, no details on its potential harm to the environment. Data on its production and the potential health effects of the chemical on workers who create it are CBI – “Confidential Business Information.” Because of the weakness of federal toxics law, we have practically zero information about a chemical potentially now in the water supply of millions of Americans.

Disasters like these are far too frequent, and consumers have far too little information about the chemicals stored near their water sources or used near where they work and raise their families. The chemical regulations intended to protect the public instead coddle chemical companies and big business.

We can do better. We can fight for regulations that keep toxic chemicals out of our waterways, our personal care products and our food. We can better inform the public about the chemicals they encounter every single day.  

Since 1993, EWG has been part of the struggle to create more meaningful chemical safety laws and regulations that better protect American families. We will continue to fight for more information for consumers and for strong laws that can prevent disasters like this from ever happening again.  


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