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Engineers investigate possible lingering impacts from Elk River chemical spill

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Posted April 16, 2015

Researchers go door-to-door, test tap water for possible impact on plastic pipes in home plumbing systems.

In January, 2014, thousands of gallons of chemicals, including crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or MCHM, spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River, near Charleston. The spill ultimately contaminated the local water supply and approximately 300,000 people were ordered by state officials not to drink or use their water, except for flushing, for up to 10 days. Fears of contamination, along with chemical odors for some, lingered for months.

On January 9, 2014, a storage tank in Charleston, W.Va., leaked about 10,000 gallons of chemicals, including 4-MethylCycloHexane Methanol (MCHM), a chemical used to clean coal, a chemical researchers knew little about. The spill flowed into the Elk River and downstream to a water treatment plant, prompting officials to advise 15 percent of the entire state's population to not drink the water. Within hours of the news, local environmental engineer Jennifer Weidhaas knew she had to study the spill and the potential impacts on nearby ecosystems and human health. NSF quickly issued her a Rapid grant, given to study the damage of disasters before the data washes away. Weidhaas and her West Virginia University team rushed to the spill site to collect water and soil samples from the river. Image credit: NSF

On January 9, 2014, a storage tank in Charleston, W.Va., leaked about 10,000 gallons of chemicals, including 4-MethylCycloHexane Methanol (MCHM), a chemical used to clean coal, a chemical researchers knew little about. The spill flowed into the Elk River and downstream to a water treatment plant, prompting officials to advise 15 percent of the entire state’s population to not drink the water. Within hours of the news, local environmental engineer Jennifer Weidhaas knew she had to study the spill and the potential impacts on nearby ecosystems and human health. NSF quickly issued her a Rapid grant, given to study the damage of disasters before the data washes away. Weidhaas and her West Virginia University team rushed to the spill site to collect water and soil samples from the river. Image credit: NSF

With support from a National Science Foundation (NSF) rapid response research grant (RAPID), environmental engineer Andrew Whelton, then at the University of South Alabama, led a research team that went door-to-door taking water samples within days of the spill. The researchers wanted to better understand the degree to which spilled chemicals permeated plastic pipes in household plumbing systems. Whelton’s research involves investigating what effect, if any, polyethylene potable water pipes have on drinking water quality, including worst case scenarios, such as the Elk River chemical spill.

During the field research in West Virginia, Whelton also worked with NSF fellow and Ohio State University doctoral candidate Krista Bryson, who was videotaping footage for a documentary at the time aimed at communicating accurate scientific information to the public. Some of Bryson’s footage was used in this Science Nation episode.

Source: NSF

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