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April 13, 2015

Engineers investigate possible lingering impacts from Elk River chemical spill

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.

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.

Whelton, now at Purdue University, continues to examine the fate of chemicals in plumbing systems. He intends to share his research findings with public health officials and regulators, as well as manufacturers and building designers.

Whelton's work is among a set of NSF Grants for Rapid Response Research (RAPID) to study different engineering aspects of the spill.

The work in this episode was supported by NSF award #1424627, RAPID GOALI: Chemical Contamination and Remediation of Plastic Drinking Water Infrastructure during the West Virginia American Water Drinking Contamination Incident. GOALI is NSF’s Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry program. The work was also supported by NSF award #1430133, RAPID: Social and Behavioral Aspects of the West Virginia Chemical Spill and Water Crisis.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Marsha Walton, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.