WASHINGTON – There are more than 80,000 chemicals in the United States catalogued by government regulators, and the health risks of most of them are unknown.
This became glaringly obvious when, on Jan. 9, a clear, licorice-smelling chemical leaked from an old storage tank into the Elk River in West Virginia, contaminating the drinking water for much of the state, including the capital, Charleston.
What made the spill alarming was not just the reports of rashes, stomach aches and other ailments but the paucity of information about the potential toxicity of Crude MCHM, which is primarily composed of a chemical named 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.
The 15-page material safety data sheet for the chemical, which is manufactured by Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical, uses the phrase no data available 152 times.
So sketchy is the public health systems understanding of the chemicals toxicity that officials wound up backtracking on whether it was safe for everyone to start drinking the water again after the do-not-use order was lifted last week.
At first, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the water would be safe if it had less than 1 part per million of Crude MCHM. But then on Wednesday, the state Department of Health and Human Resources, after consulting with the CDC, said pregnant women shouldnt drink the water until officials declare it free of any trace of the chemical.
There are extraordinary gaps in knowledge, said Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent agency that investigates industrial accidents. Of the West Virginia case, he said: There are so many chemicals around, and in most cases the toxicology is not complete.
Chemicals in the United States are generally treated as innocent until proven guilty. A company does not have to prove that a chemical does not pose a health hazard in order to introduce it in the commercial market.
Maranda Demuth, a spokeswoman for Eastman Chemical, said that the company goes to great lengths to ensure our commercial products and facilities meet or exceed regulatory standards.
U.S. law, though, did not require Eastman to test Crude MCHM. The company voluntarily conducted 18 toxicity tests on the product and its major component. Demuth played down the significance of the no data available entries, noting that nine of 152 such entries refer to water, which is harmless. She said the company abides by the European Unions strict requirements for toxicity disclosure, and that had the company followed the U.S. standard, it wouldnt have included the no data entries.
It has been 38 years since Congress passed a major piece of legislation regulating toxic chemicals, even though there is no disagreement that the Toxic Substances Control Act needs an overhaul.
Two senators, the late Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., and David Vitter, R-La., introduced an industry-friendly bill last year called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act. Lautenberg died just days later, and the bill has been mired in a Senate committee. A House subcommittee has held hearings on chemical safety and is crafting a bill similar to the Senates.
The Senate bill is opposed by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of environmental, labor and public health organizations. What happened in West Virginia is a scandal, said Andy Igrejas, national campaign director for the group, and the second scandal is that the reform thats on the table now would do almost nothing to change that situation.
The new act would separate chemicals into two categories, high and low priority, and the Environmental Protection Agency would be allowed to conduct tests on only the high-priority chemicals. States would have to follow the federal lead – a one-size-fits-all approach that the industry favors.
But the chemicals are categorized according to the hazards they pose if used properly for their intended industrial purpose. As Demuth, the Eastman Chemical spokeswoman, noted: Eastman tested the mixture Crude MCHM for its intended use as an industrial chemical in a controlled industrial environment using a variety of toxicity tests.
Crude MCHM would probably be considered a low-priority chemical by the EPA, said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The EPA would then be prohibited from subjecting the chemical to further tests, he said.
That is a recipe for new regulatory and knowledge gaps that could prove just as harmful as the ones were facing in West Virginia, Waxman said.