Issue Date: March 3, 2014
Charleston Chemists’ Experiences
As part of C&EN’s reporting for the Feb. 17 cover story on the chemical leak that tainted the water supply of Charleston, W.Va., in early January, we reached out to ACS members living in the affected area. Their tales reflect those of many Charleston-area residents, who found out on Jan. 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. We could not use all of the responses in our article but want to share their experiences, so we wove them into a CENtral Science blog post for Feb. 17 (http://cenm.ag/two15). And we bring them to our print readers here.
I went to the grocery store at about 7 PM on Jan. 9 and there was no regular water left, but I was lucky enough to get three 2-L bottles of club soda. People were buying food that didn’t require water for cooking, and a whole new level of complication hit me—no doing dishes or laundry and cooking with the limited amount of water we had. We started eating off paper plates, and I successfully made coffee with club soda.
We, and a lot of other people, are still not drinking or cooking with the tap water. We ask whether a restaurant is using bottled water before eating there. We do use tap water to wash dishes and laundry and for showers, because I figure the dilution factors will decrease toxicity/negative health effects. I’d be extremely concerned if we had small children, pregnant women, or pets in our household, but we don’t.
I am retired from Union Carbide and live in South Hills, Charleston. I learned about the spill on Thursday, Jan. 9, when a friend advised me to go out and buy water immediately. I walked out of the house, and although at 6 PM our water did not smell, the entire outside smelled strongly of a sickly sweet odor. I drove to Rite Aid, about 2 miles away. The parking lot was full of cars, and there was no water remaining, nor any milk, juice, soft drinks, or nonalcoholic drinks of any kind. Many people were buying beer and wine and large bags of ice.
That evening, three hours after I heard about the water problem, the water in our home suddenly began to smell strongly like something sickly sweet. All of the toilets smelled after that when flushed, and the odor was so strong that it bothered my eyes. So I left toilet lids down and kept bathroom doors closed. The odor continued, and the whole house smelled strongly for days. Baths and showers were not possible.
On early Saturday, it rained really hard, and my husband collected about 60 gal of water from the roof through a gutter into coolers. We used this for washing ourselves and dishes. I used two huge crab pots to keep hot water on the stove that could be mixed with cold rainwater for warm water. I got a nice hot bath.
We are not particularly worried about our health, but I installed a 10-inch filter on my kitchen faucet with the best activated-carbon 0.5-µm filter I could find, which is rated to remove organics. I use that water for cooking and drinking, or we use purchased spring or purified water.
Times have changed. 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, acetone, and methylene chloride directly, and sometimes chloroform. We kept these solvents in squeeze bottles by the sink just for washing. After several years of that, I figure that 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) and various unknowns will not kill me. Nevertheless, I may as well drink purified water or water from a source that is tested.
When the water system was suddenly contaminated by MCHM in mid-January, there weren’t sufficient instruments available in this area that could be used to analyze the content of the chemical in water. Agents from the National Guard contacted my university about the availability of a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer for water analysis. Fortunately, the University of Charleston has a high-quality GC-MS, and our instrument was effectively and efficiently utilized in the analysis. Reliable data for the MCHM content were generated.
Moreover, my chemistry colleagues and I at the University of Charleston were able to take this opportunity to educate our students about practical chemistry and to demonstrate to the students the importance of chemistry and how to serve the community using our chemistry knowledge. I believe that after this unfortunate event, I have been able to strengthen my organic chemistry class by teaching the students the structure, nomenclature, and fundamental chemical properties of MCHM and to strengthen my general chemistry class by bringing practical chemistry in everyday life to the classroom.
It was a challenge to make sure our family avoided ingesting the water—we had to separate the “good” ice from the “bad,” for example. We stopped using our water right away, but using the chemical and engineering skills God has graced me with, I did drain our hot-water tank—there was no way it could have been contaminated so quickly. I used that water to take a nice warm bath. After that I skipped the morning treadmill because I couldn’t take showers at home. Like many others we traveled to unaffected friends’ homes to take showers, and we were often treated to dinner as well.
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