Unsurprisingly, many are using the chemical spill that occurred in Charleston, West Virginia in January to push the government to tighten chemical regulations across the country. People who probably didn't know what TSCA was, much less that it stood for the Toxic Substances Control Act, have started to push for Congress to make real changes to the law. The typical reaction to this kind of incident is to demand dramatically increased transparency - but was that really the problem? And is it a real solution for the future?
A report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute has laid out some of the myths and facts surrounding the spill and the media frenzy that has followed.
Myth: The spill was a major environmental catastrophe.
Fact: While clearly there were some failures, both in the preventative efforts and emergency response stages, this incident must be analyzed with a wider perspective. Although some residents did suffer from skin and eye irritation before officials put out the water advisory, by current counts only a minute percentage of the population was affected and serious illness was avoided across the board. The system was flushed and the chemicals were successfully removed from the water supply and would break down in the environment in a matter of weeks.
Myth: This spill shows that chemical industry regulations are not strict enough.
Fact: Adequate regulations were in place, but officials (both state and local) failed to uphold them. For example, Freedom Industries had disclosed this chemical to the EPA, as the Toxics Release Inventory requires, but local officials failed to use that information to plan for an emergency situation involving the chemical. It was also discovered that the failed tanks had not been inspected in decades, which was not in keeping with what the law requires. In this case, oversight and avoidance by both Freedom Industries and various regulatory bodies are to blame far more than lacking regulations.
Myth: The material safety data sheets did not provide useful information about the chemical.
Fact: The sheets did exactly as they are meant to do - include the information necessary to ensure proper and safe handling of the chemical. The MSDS is not meant to detail all risks or toxicological data; they are not meant to be an all-encompassing informational guide in a disaster situation.
Myth: We do not have adequate information about the risks this chemical posed.
Fact: We know that it is only long-term, high doses of MCHM that poses a danger, and the low-level, short-term exposure shared by West Virginia residents and even workers in the facility does not.
Myth: We lack toxicological information on Crude MCHM.
Fact: Government and industry tests show that the chemical has only a low toxicity. Much of the perceived lack of information on the chemical actually stems from efforts to protect proprietary formulas and from the EPA having enough information such that it did not need to seek out further proof.
Myth: Officials can't confirm public safety post-spill.
Fact: Officials simply failed to focus on the data that showed that the likelihood of long-term health effects were slim to none, allowing the media to run wild with the qualifiers about "the unavoidable reality of uncertainty" that the CDC and other scientists are always forced to include. No one can be 100% certain of anything, and even though the CDC deemed the water safe, all anyone heard was "that we can't know for sure."
Myth: Residents were also exposed to formaldehyde, a by-product of MCHM.
Fact: There is no actual evidence of a significant release of formaldehyde, especially considering that MCHM must be heated to 500 degrees Fahrenheit before it breaks down into formaldehyde - which is very unlikely to have occurred within the environment. The formaldehyde rumors were started by a West Virginia official who was not a part of the investigation, who claimed to have done tests that no one could validate.
Myth: This spill is yet another example of big corporations raking in profits while people are exposed to dangerous chemicals.
Fact: Chemical companies bring in most profits when consumers believe their products to be safe and pose no obvious threat to anyone, including their own workers. The incident in West Virginia is a great example of how exposing the public to (potentially dangerous) chemicals is not profitable; Freedom Industries is now in bankruptcy and facing what will probably be years of litigation. I can think of no past instances where an accident similar to this was good for the PR of a chemical company.
It seems clear from the data now available to us that it was human error, on the part of Freedom Industries as well as many state and local officials, which caused both the spill and the media over-reaction to it. Hopefully, this will be a lesson for other companies and communities so that this kind of accident can be avoided in the future.