Why W. Virginia Crisis Is Perfect Example of Our Lab Rat Status Quo – “Unacceptable Limits” Premier Moves to Larger Theater

by jim on January 14, 2014

Laboratory ratJust to make sure you got the message of Ed Brown's new film about how FUBAR'd the chemical regulatory system is in the US, the twice-convicted felon who runs Freedom Industries in West Virginia arranged for tens of thousands of gallons of a little-known, little understood synthetic substance to spill into the Elk River, cutting off drinking water to 300,000 Charleston area residents.

So don't let this contamination go to waste – get thee to the online ticket booth and grab some stubs to the January 30th Dallas premiere of "Unacceptable Limits" before it sells out again. They moved it to a bigger theater inside the AMC 16 complex and there are another 50-70 seats now available. The film's producer is showing up and they'll be a short panel discussion afterwards involving Sharon Wilson of Earthworks, Zac Trahan of Texas Campaign for the Environment and Jim Schermbeck of Downwinders at Risk.

And if you read nothing else about the West Virginia situation, please take five minutes to scan this excellent account by the local Charleston Gazette, of how officials are pulling estimates of "safe levels" of the substance MCHM out of their regulatory asses. Why? Because it takes the story away from the god-awful specifics of West Virginia and applies it across the board to explain how no one – not industry, not the US government, not scientists of any sort –  has any idea what's a safe exposure to most of the 80,000 chemicals we're coming into contact with in the marketplace. This is exactly Mr. Brown's point in "Unacceptable Limits," and the West Virginia story makes it in spades…..

Tierney explained that the CDC looked for relevant studies of the chemical's health effects but found only one — a 1990 study by Eastman, maker of the product, that was not published in peer-reviewed literature and is considered proprietary.

That study, she said, was the basis for the median lethal dose, or LD50, listed on an Eastman "material safety data sheet," or MSDS that's been circulated by local emergency responders, health officials and the media.

And there you have it. We have one study about the health effects of this chemical. It was done in 1990 – which in environmental health data years, is like the mid-1800's. And it was done by the entity hoping to make a profit from its manufacture. Nothing unseemly there! And then of course we're only talking about fatal doses...

(Based) On that MSDS, the LD50 for Crude MCHM is listed as 825 milligrams per kilogram. This means that, when tested on rats, an 825 milligram dose per kilogram of body weight was enough to kill half the rats.


"The experts then took this number and calculated the uncertainty factors," she wrote. "In this situation there were two. The first uncertainty factor was translating these results from rats to humans. The second uncertainty factor took into account sensitive populations. This includes the elderly, the sick, the immuno-compromised and children, amongst others.


"Uncertainty factors range from 5 to 10 percent," she wrote. "Given the dearth of data and an abundance of caution, both uncertainty factors were rated at 10 percent."


This, Tierney explained, changed the level that would cause death to 8.25 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.


LD50 figures, though, consider only death. They would tell officials nothing about what levels at which chemical exposure would cause other health effects, even serious ones.


To address this, they changed the figure to 1 milligram per kilogram of body weight, which is equal to 1 part per million. It's not clear though — and Tierney did not explain — the scientific basis for the change from 8.25 milligrams per kilogram to 1 milligram per kilogram.


"In this case, it is the entire toxicity profile of a chemical that is unknown. However, predictions are based on what we do know looking at the chemistry and the available data," she said. "In this case, we are dealing with a short-term exposure as opposed to situations in which people have been exposed for weeks to months to years."

Well, at least as far as we know now. The tanks storing the chemical could have been leaking for a long time before they ruptured. The water supply system in Charleston isn't built to catch and filter this kind of chemical, so we'd never know except for a catastrophic accident. In all kinds of ways, we're no different than the rats in the Eastman experiment. No doubt, the catastrophe in Cahrleston will be an epidemiological field day of new research on the health effects of MCHM.

You could throw a dart at nearly all of those 80,000 chemicals on the marketplace and find a similar lack of hard data supporting their benign effect on human health. This is just a more spectacular and acute example.

You might rightly assume that the EPA or FDA or some government agency somewhere is testing these chemicals to make sure they'll be safe when they get rubbed on skin, or inhaled in a lung, or swallowed down a gullet. There is no such agency. No such testing takes place on these chemicals individually, much less in combination with one another, as they would be expected to be experienced in the real world. When there is a study, it is, more often than not, done by the company who wants to make a buck selling the chemical. And even then, the result is limited to finding a less than lethal dose, not understanding how the chemical might disrupt hormones, or the immune system, or have other, more subtle effects we have only come to know about in the last 5-10 years.

Do yourself a favor and get tickets to the January 30th showing of "Unacceptable Risks." Bring your neighbor. Before you find out more than you want to know about the next contaminant gone astray.

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