Engineers investigate possible lingering impacts from Elk River chemical spill

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 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 the Science Nation episode featured today. Whelton, now at Purdue University, continues to test the chemical’s impact on plumbing systems. He intends to share his research findings with public health officials and regulators, as well as manufacturers and building designers.

Provided by the National Science Foundation

Runtime: 3:12

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