Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What does a chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia have to do with plastic?

Last weekend I traveled north to meet up with Dr. Bill Cooper to put pen to paper writing up our data from four years of open ocean research in the North Atlantic gyre.  When I finally arrived 6 hours later, I was pretty stoked to begin something that has been hanging over my head for years now - attempting to get our data published in a peer reviewed journal.  But anyone that knows Cooper, understands how four hours later I would find myself in Charleston, West Virginia.  He has a knack for getting into uncharted waters and I was in tow for yet another adventure.  What was the urgency?  Unfortunately, the chemical spill that contaminated fresh water for some 300,000 residents of Charleston, WV had not only left the residents without water, but equally important, with a loss of trust in the governing body in that region.

Several researchers reached out to Cooper, who now works at National Science Foundation (NSF) in DC, to apply for a RAPID grant to help make sense of this senseless situation.  Fortunately for the Charleston residents, the not yet funded Andy Whelton, PhD, University of South Alabama, packed up supplies, four students, and the Chair of his department and traveled over 800 miles to collect samples and to interview the folks to learn some important lessons from this serious accident. Utilizing Facebook, local non-profits helped Dr. Whelton find people willing to allow his team into their homes to take samples, to encourage them to flush out their pipes, and to survey their experience through this horrible ordeal.  I witnessed first hand how the efforts of this group has helped restore some confidence to the community and Whelton's personal page provides information for the residents as well as a forum for them to ask questions.

Imagine not trusting your water.  Not to even wash your hands, clothes, babies, dishes, nor drink or cook with it.  I observed in silent horror as residents shared their stories about the smell of black licorice coming out of the pipes, the water an odd color blue, and leaving a white powdered ring in their tub basins.  They told us how some friends got sick, while others had rashes, how they were told the water was fine, only to be told later pregnant women, and children under age three, should not ingest it.  And to add insult to injury, Freedom Industries full knowing the chemical tanks were in dire shape, within feet of the river without a containment wall, filed bankruptcy.  The fear had gotten so great, that people would not flush out the pipe systems worrying that the fumes released into their homes might hurt them, their children, and animals.  I listened to Dr. Whelton explain to the residents that they must flush their pipes because if the contaminated water is left in the pipes, especially plastic pipes, the chemicals could potentially adsorb into the pipes and then as time goes on slowly desorb into their water.  Wait, what?  I knew that plastic acts like a sponge adsorbing chemicals that are lipophilic in the open ocean, but it never occurred to me that the plastic pipes in my house might do the same thing.  In fact, Dr. Whelton has published several papers on this very topic.  Imagine, the chemical spill in West Virginia has taught me another potential issue about the industrious uses of plastics. I didn't see THAT coming from something that seems so far removed from the problems with plastic pollution.

 Once the residents understand this, they are more than likely to flush out their pipes, but without the involvement of some outsiders, many of the folks would not have understood nor taken action.  Dr. Whelton has teamed up Krista Bryson, a student working on a full-length documentary on the water crisis in West Virginia and she is helping him get this valuable information to the community.

Research is so vital to understanding how we can improve our uses of chemistry while treading gently on the planet protecting all living things on it.
If you would like to help support Dr. Whelton's research for the sake of the Charleston folks, please visit:  microryza.com