MOBILE, Alabama University of South Alabama assistant professor Andrew Whelton and USA graduate students are continuing research on the aftereffects of a chemical spill that contaminated West Virginia's Elk River on Jan. 9.
We re wrapping up our interpretation of the unfunded work we did back in January, Whelton said. The students are also continuing work on chemical absorption or permeation of plastic piping; how it absorbs (and) the rate at which it absorbs and de-sorbs.
The water crisis, which affected about 300,000 residents, began when 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol or MCHM, an industrial chemical used in the preparation of coal, leaked into the Elk River upstream of a regional water utility treatment plant. The leak was discovered after residents detected a licorice odor in their water.
Soon after the crisis began, Whelton and an engineering and science team of USA professors and students
Back in Mobile, the USA students have been conducting experiments to determine the levels of the chemical s permeation in the pipes, and the rate at which the chemical is leaching from the pipes back into the water supply after the original contamination.
USA's work is funded, in part, byfrom the National Science Foundation to determine the potential long-term impacts of the spill, which affected the drinking water of 15 percent of the state s population.
The students "recognize that this is highly unusual, to be conducting research on something that has affected so many lives and is continuing to do so, Whelton said. The spill, he added, was the large chemical drinking water contamination of the century, possibly also in history in terms of an acute contamination event.
The USA team that traveled to Charleston was composed of Whelton, a former U.S. Army civilian employee; Kevin White, chair of civil engineering at USA; and graduate students Matt Connell, Jeff Gill, Keven Kelley and LaKia McMillan.
On March 12, Whelton and McMillan gave a seminar at the University of New Orleans about their findings, called Lessons Learned from the Largest Drinking Water Chemical Contamination Incident in U.S. History: The 2014 Elk River Chemical Spill, West Virginia.
Whelton has been working on the crisis on two fronts: Evaluating the research from January and working with the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project (WV TAP).
In February, W.Va. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin asked the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, in cooperation with local and state health officials, to launch the WV TAP in-home testing effort. Whelton and Jeffrey Rosen of Corona Environmental Consulting were selected to lead the WV TAP team.
On April 1, the panel held a news conference to give its preliminary findings. Among them: The safe exposure level to MCHM, the industrial chemical involved in the spill, was 120 parts per billion, as opposed to the 1,000 ppb level listed by the Centers for Disease Control.
The panel also listed five research needs: determine the potential of MCHM to cause skin irritation; conduct toxicology studies for MCHM in pregnant animals; organize all available data on exposures and health effects (from immediately following the spill) to facilitate the estimation of initial conditions; consider the need for a long-term health effects study; and determine the chemical's path within the treatment plant and the water distribution system.
Whelton stressed that lessons learned from the spill have wide-reaching implications, particularly about the need to create plans on how to handle such incidents in the future.
People in the spill area were given confusing information about how to flush their plumbing systems, and some who did became ill from the resulting fumes in their homes, he said. As a consequence, he said, many homeowners refused to flush their systems at all, which meant that the longer the chemical lingered in the plumbing, more of it soaked into the pipes.
An action plan on responding to water contamination should have been in place since 9-11, he said. "There was no guidance available as to what to do to remove that chemical from the water system and do it in such a way as to not expose the population to that chemical, so there s a lot of work to be done in terms on chemical absorption into piping, in addition to all the work WV TAP is conducting," he said.
Overall, the crisis wasn't handled well, he said. "It was poor communication; the public was confused. Nobody believed the water was safe -- other organizations refused to use the word 'safe.' There was a crisis of confidence with the water system.
"WV TAP is going to be the first independent investigation into the chemical quality of the tap water. This is not a government-controlled event -- this is fully independent."
He hopes that the panel's work will lead to a more cohesive response in the future. "The people involved in this event will be the most knowledgeable people out there as to how to respond to an event like this," he said.
Whelton has been Tweeting updates and making posts on his blog as his research progresses. Follow him @TheWheltonGroup or visit .
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