Water, Water Everywhere, but Not (Clean) Enough to Drink

Elise Miller, MEd
CHE Director

Elise Miller, MEdSometimes it’s hard to see how CHE’s work of bringing attention the emerging environmental health science links directly with the health of a particular community or population. Over this past week, residents of Charleston, West Virginia, and others living along the Elk River have experienced first-hand how a major chemical spill, and the lack of knowledge about the toxic effects of that chemical, can impact their health and well-being. Though some of the “do-not-use” bans on water have been lifted in the past couple days, many thousands of people still don’t have water with which to cook, bathe or do laundry. Hospitals, restaurants and other businesses have also been significantly disrupted.

Perhaps what is most disconcerting–aside from the state apparently ignoring federal recommendations years ago for stronger oversight of chemical plants–is that almost no toxicological data exists on the chemical of concern, known as “Crude MCHM”, which is used in coal processing. In fact, no information is apparently available on its potential carcinogenic effects, mutagenic effects nor developmental toxicity. Some officials have pointed to the median lethal dose, or LD50, for the material as an indicator, but that only tells you what will kill half a rat population when exposed in a lab, not the level of exposure that could make people sick.

So what does this have to do with CHE’s work? In short, if we don’t have scientific research that is uncompromised by industry ties and fully transparent and available to the public, then we will continue to have public health disasters like the one in Charleston, WV. And if the research we do have on synthetic chemicals used in commerce suggests they can potentially harm human health, then that only strengthens the case that we can’t wait for yet another spill to discover once again that what we thought was safe actually isn’t. CHE is committed to ensuring that this information–what we know and don’t know and need to know–is prioritized in all levels of decision making from the research that gets funded to the regulations that are needed to protect community health.

Of course, a crisis like this really only points to the most visible and acute situations. Much of the current environmental health science suggests that low-dose, chronic chemical exposures are equally if not more critical in terms of human health because they often fall under the radar. And new studies are published almost daily affirming this. Water contamination, for example, is also become a concern around hydraulic fracking operations. A recent study published in the journal Endocrinology showed that water samples collected at Colorado sites where fracking is underway contain endocrine disrupting chemicals that have been linked to infertility, birth defects and cancer. And four states last week confirmed that the chemicals used in fracking have polluted well-water. These are not immediate disasters like what is happening in West Virginia, but the long-term health consequences could be equally if not more detrimental and costly because no preventive action is currently being taken.

Yes, our work is cut out for us. None of us wants more communities to wake up one day to find they can’t drink the water because of chemical contamination. None of us wants environmental contributors to chronic disease to continue polluting not only our water, but our air, our soil, and our bodies and children’s bodies.

Given this, we at CHE dedicate ourselves again in the New Year to providing you with opportunities to share and discuss the emerging science and its implications for human health with leading researchers in the field as well as those from other disciplines and backgrounds. We’re well aware that collaboration is more essential than ever if we are to leverage our collective intelligence and creativity towards improving public health across the lifespan. And in that light, we are most grateful to get to continue to collaborate with all of you in 2014.