The West Virginia Chemical Spill: Chemists React

Today’s post is by Amanda Yarnell, assistant managing editor of C&EN’s science/technology/education group.

As part of our coverage of the West Virginia chemical spill, C&EN contacted a number of ACS members living in the affected area. We couldn’t fit all their stories into our report, so we’re sharing pieces of them here. Their tales reflect those of many Charleston area residents, who found out on January 9 that their tap water had been contaminated with a chemical used in coal processing. And they give a chemist’s perspective on the spill’s effects on daily life.

Like other residents, the chemists C&EN spoke to headed out to buy water when they heard the news.

Retired chemist Barbara Warren, who lives more than 2 miles from the Kahawha and Elk rivers, drove to her local Rite Aid. “The parking lot was full of cars. There was no water remaining there, nor was there any milk, juice, soft drinks, or any nonalcoholic drinks of any kinds. There were many empty shelves. Many were buying beer and wine and large bags of ice.”

When she got home, she and her husband found that they still had water in their 1991 pop-top Volkswagen van, leftover from a fall camping trip. A few days later, it rained, and her husband collected about 60 gallons of rainwater in coolers. “We used this for washing ourselves and dishes. I used two huge crab pots to keep hot water on the stove which could be mixed with cold rain water for warm water.”

Madan Bhasin also found a way to get clean, despite the water ban. The chief scientific adviser at Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center drained his hot water heater as soon as he heard the news. “I used it to take a nice warm bath.”

Xiaoping Sun, a chemistry professor at the University of Charleston, lives and works in the affected area. “Per the order, the water could only be used for flushing toilets and extinguishing fires,” he says. “Routine tasks such as brushing our teeth required thought to remind ourselves to not turn on the tap water. Washing dishes, laundry, and hands – these basic routine tasks could have put our family in harm.”

Although officials have cleared tap water to drink for all but pregnant women and children, Sun and other chemists C&EN spoke with continue to stick to bottled water for drinking and cooking.

“We ask whether they are using bottled water before eating in restaurants,” adds Sun’s U of Charleston chemistry colleague Juliana Serafin.

Serafin had to resort to making her coffee with soda water in the spill’s early days. Credit: Courtesy of Juliana Serafin

Serafin had to resort to making her coffee with soda water in the spill’s early days.
Credit: Courtesy of Juliana Serafin

Warren installed a 10-inch countertop filter on her kitchen faucet with the best activated carbon 0.5 micron filter she could find. “I use that water for cooking and drinking, or we use purchased spring or purified water.”

“Times have changed,” Warren says. “At Stanford as an undergraduate, I remember doing an azeotropic distillation of carbon tetrachloride and benzene without hoods. We all got headaches. At the University of Chicago, we used to do reactions without gloves and wash our hands with hexane and acetone and methylene chloride directly, and sometimes chloroform.” She says they kept the same solvents in squeeze bottles by the sink just for washing. “After several years of that, I figure that MCHM and various unknowns will not kill me. Nevertheless, I may as well drink purified water or water from a source that is tested.”

Just as getting water was challenging in the days after the spill, getting accurate information also posed a problem for residents.

Sun notes that the recent chemical spill “has caused a high level of panic in this area. One reason for this heightened level of concern and precaution is due to the mixed guidance coming from local, state, and federal officials.”

Manufacturing process chemist Mark Darcy cites another reason. “I think there are huge differences in residents’ perception of risk. To someone who doesn’t know much chemistry, it’s alarming.”

Sun used details of the spill to bring practical chemistry to life for his chemistry students. Credit: U of Charleston


Hoping to change that, Sun and his colleagues have treated the incident as a teaching moment for their students. “I believe that after this unfortunate event, I have been able to strengthen my organic chemistry class,” Sun says. He’s described the structure, nomenclature, and fundamental chemical properties of crude 4-methylcyclo­hexanemethanol, the licorice-smelling chemical released into the local water supply. “And I’ve been able to strengthen my general chemistry class by bringing to the classroom practical chemistry in everyday life.”

Author: Amanda Yarnell

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