Chemical Dependence

On January 9th, 2014, a chemical spill occurred at Freedom Industries in Charleston, West Virginia. The main ingredient of the spill was 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (or MCHM for short), a washing agent used to remove impurities from coal. The spilled chemical traveled quickly down the Elk River, downstream towards the regional municipal water intake, where it contaminated the drinking water supply of more than 300,000 people. It was not until almost a month later that federal health officials were able to confirm that the local water supply was once again safe for human use.

Synthetic chemicals have become ubiquitous in almost all aspects of our modern lives:  Bisphenol A in cash register receipts; Azodicarbonamide in bread and yoga mats; Phthalates in shampoo; volatile organic compounds in paint. These selected cases illustrate not only the variety of substances we come in contact with on a daily basis, but focus on a growing subset of these chemicals that have received increased attention in recent years due to their potentially negative health impacts. With the recent chemical spill in West Virginia fresh in our minds, we should ask ourselves how our society plans to deal with the negative side-effects associated with our reliance on an increasing number of potentially hazardous chemicals.

In the US, the Toxic Substances Control Act exists to regulate the distribution and use of commercial chemicals such as MCHM that may pose a risk to human health and the environment. An important part of effective chemical regulation includes conducting research to determine the toxicity of, and appropriate exposure limits for, a certain chemical. However, on the 9th of January, any spill responders looking to existing government databases, such as the Hazardous Substances Data Bank, for guidance would have come away disappointed. Even if MCHM was listed, there was very little detailed safety and exposure information available. Why did so little information exist for an apparently regulated chemical substance like MCHM? As it turns out, MCHM is one of more than 62,000 chemicals that were already in existence in 1976, and were simply grandfathered into the newly drafted Toxic Substances Control Act, meaning that unlike “new” chemicals, many “existing” chemicals had only minimal research and toxicity evaluations performed. Despite MCHM being a regulated chemical, spill responders found themselves battling an almost entirely unknown adversary. If the West Virginia spill illustrates anything, it is that that regulation alone is not sufficient to effectively manage hazardous substances, particularly when that regulation ignores the need for conclusive science.

The increased attention that MCHM received during the early days of the spill prompted the publicizing of a number of studies conducted by the Eastman Chemical Company in the 1990’s – the only known studies that assess the toxicity of MCHM. The findings of these studies were inconclusive at best, concluding that MCHM is “slightly” toxic. Does (or should) the fact that Eastman is the creator and only producer of MCHM in the US alter our acceptance of these findings? Ideally, neither the public nor regulators should ever have to rely on data that originated from such an obviously conflicted source, but in the case of the West Virginia spill, no other information was available to either support or invalidate the Eastman findings.

The postmortem of the events in West Virginia has illustrated a number of areas where our current regulatory system falls short of protecting society from potentially hazardous substances. First, there is a lack of clarity regarding whose responsibility it is to conduct toxicological research for all the many chemicals in use today. Those producing and profiting from a chemical are an obvious and decentralized choice- a kind of extension of the “polluter pays” principal.” However, public response to the Eastman studies suggests a lack of trust in results so obviously fraught with vested interests. Toxicity results obtained from third party studies, conducted at academic institutions or government laboratories, may alleviate concerns about such conflicts of interest. However the process of conducting toxicological research for even a single chemical is a long and expensive one, and funding is a real issue. An ideal if impractical compromise would be a system where research is funded by those producing the chemicals, but conducted by third party researchers.

Second is the question of data validation and review. What level of data replication is necessary for the public to feel confident that the science conducted has accurately captured the risk? Perhaps the decision of who should be responsible for funding and conducting these toxicological studies becomes less important if, unlike for MCHM, results are available from several different sources – sufficient replication, validation and review of findings will do much to dispel fears of biased conclusions.

In addition to these practical questions that need to be addressed more explicitly, there is an opportunity here to initiate a broader ideological discussion. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our modern lifestyle depends on any number of chemical substances. These industrial chemicals have enabled a high standard of living, but bring with them a weighty responsibility: when used without necessary caution, these chemicals can be disastrous to human and environmental health. As a society, how do we plan to deal with the negative side-effects associated with our reliance on an increasing number of these potentially hazardous chemicals? There is a chance here for us to make a more conscious and well-informed decision regarding where on the spectrum of chemical reliance we wish to be. Ultimately, it becomes a question of what level of health and environmental risk are we willing to accept in order to sustain our current lifestyle?


Image Credit: Joe Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons


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