Uncertainty and the West Virginia Chemical Spill

In the aftermath of the January 9 chemical spill in West Virginia, environmental activists claim: “More than two weeks after the spill, the answer to most questions about the spill and the chemicals in it is either that ‘we don’t know’ or that the information is incomplete.” Green groups make such claims to capitalize on the fact that everything in life has some uncertainty. But that does not mean that Charleston residents should live in fear because, as I explained in prior posts in this series on the West Virginia Chemical Spill, the long-term health effects are negligible.

Unfortunately, much of the media hysteria about the chemical spill and its risks are partly the result of a communication failure among public officials. In a politically charged situation, officials failed to place this risk in perspective. Moreover, cautious researchers always qualify their findings by acknowledging the reality of uncertainty. Nothing is 100-percent safe, and uncertainly in every aspect of life is unavoidable. In this case and others, the best we can expect is relative safety. Unfortunately, media and activists have not focused on relative safety, and instead harped on the qualifiers and uncertainties, blowing the risk out of proportion and generating needless fears.

To its credit, the CDC moved quickly to determine what level of the chemical in the drinking water would pose negligible risks. It set a 1 part-per-million standard as safe based on rodent tests applying numerous safety factors akin to EPA standards for other drinking water contaminants. It then applied additional safety factors to come up with a level that is likely hundreds or thousands of times lower than what is actually “safe.”

But rather than emphasize the low risks, CDC researchers, who want to be scientifically accurate, also communicated the unavoidable reality of uncertainty — and that is where the media and greens placed emphasis. For example, National Public Radio reported that CDC chief medical researcher Vikas Kapil acknowledged, “‘that there was very little information to go on.’ Still, he says, drinking water that meets the CDC guideline of one part per million is ‘generally not likely to be associated with any adverse health effects.”

CDC’s qualifications and caution were misconstrued yet again after agency officials wrote to the West Virginia Department of Health updating officials on their research. While they considered their 1 part per million standard sufficiently protective, CDC officials said they were reviewing some additional studies. They commented further that “out of an abundance of caution,” the state “may wish to consider” advising pregnant women to stick with bottled water until the chemical was completely eliminated from the tap water.

The resulting state advisory created more confusion, with the news media suggesting that CDC suddenly decided the chemical was dangerous to these women, which wasn’t the case. Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward proclaimed on NPR: “[B]oth [CDC and the state government] issued this warning saying, oops, by the way, pregnant women shouldn’t drink the water at all, even after their do-not-use order is lifted.” A headline in The Nation exclaimed “CDC: Pregnant Women in West Virginia Should Not Drink Contaminated Tap Water” and Time pondered, “If West Virginia’s Water Isn’t Safe for Pregnant Women, Is It Safe for Anyone?” But none of these explosive comments accurately reflect CDC’s letter or suggestion that the state simply “may wish to consider” advising women to stick with bottled water, even though CDC considered the risks to be acceptable.

The lesson here is that public health officials need to find a way to communicate relative risks in the case of such accidents. It is not productive to create panic simply because uncertainties exist — because they always exist. This goes back to emergency planners’ lack of an emergency management plan, which is already mandated for chemical spills under federal law. Officials were caught off guard and some made foolish statements, often poorly timed, about the unknowns rather than focus on what is known about short-term exposure and generally low hazards. Emergency management plans should include guidance on how to best communicate risks and uncertainties in these situations to improve understanding about relative risk without igniting unwarranted fear.

West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant complained about such confusing communications at a recent Senate hearing. Her frustration is understandable. However, she contributes to the communication problem by continuing to complain about the lack of information where sufficient information does exist. For example, she urged the CDC to provide more information on how it set its standard for the chemical, even though CDC explains in detail on its website how it calculated the standard. Tennant also is calling for a 10-year study on the long-term health effects of the spill. Given the short-term exposure, such a study is likely to provide nothing of value, although it will cost taxpayers lots of money. Such expensive, largely symbolic studies offer politicians an opportunity to appear proactive to their constituents and give them an opportunity to enhance the budgets of their local government agencies. In addition, the research effort may try to “link” unrelated health effects to the chemical, facilitating attempts by trial lawyers to file tort claims. Not surprisingly, the public officials who would receive this funding proposed this study, and they have the support of the trial lawyers’ representative — Erin Brockovich.