The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) published our OP-ED in their August/September NSPE Magazine. The submission described part of our efforts following the 2014 West Virginia large-scale drinking water contamination disaster. Specifically, eight lessons learned were discussed. The NSPE website can be found here and a copy of the PDF OP-ED can be found here: Download the NSPE OPED WheltonGupta (2014) here).
Results of this OP-ED were made possible because of the contributions of many people. Students LaKia McMillan, Matt Connell, Jeff Gill, Keven Kelley, Caroline Novy, Jesus Estaba, Freddie Avera, Maryam Salehi, and Professor Kevin White are greatly appreciated. Funding for some of the effort conducted was provided to us by the US National Science Foundation and State of West Virginia. We also had the privilege of working with Corona Environmental Consulting President Jeffrey Rosen, along with Ayhaun Ergul, Jennifer Clancy, Tim Clancy, Tim Bartrand, Toxicological Excellence in Risk Assessment Executive director Mike Dourson and Jacqueline Patterson, Utah State University Professor Craig Adams, CEO Michael J. McGuire, along with many other experts from West Virginia, across the US, Israel, and the UK.
Dear Toledo Residents Affected by the Tap Water Contamination Incident:
I am sorry that you were affected by this contaminated tap water incident. As of 9pm EST Sunday August 3, the responders have not made public really any information (who’s involved, who’s providing advice, sampling results, locations, an explicit step-wise strategy, etc.). There is no single website you can go to find all of the information. Conflicting information has been released about what is and is not recommended for tap water contact. This no doubt is frustrating and you are a resilient community that has kept good spirit. The bottled water provisions and your National Guard are downright tremendous. Many acts of kindness from your community and across the state are touching. Many people across the country are thinking about you.
Hopefully, over the next couple days, the officials will shift your incident into one of recovery. As of right now, they seem to still be trying to figure out the extent of contamination. [If they had released data, this would be more clear].
Officials will likely mandate flushing of the buried water pipes, storage tanks, and decontamination of your home plumbing systems. After, of course, the results of the water testing inside resident homes are released (if any). Officials will likely recommend that you purge contaminated water from your home plumbing systems. You need to be aware of a few issues for the protection of your friends and family.
Shortly after the January 2014 West Virginia Chemical Spill in and large-scale tap water contamination incident, my students and I drove to West Virginia to help those affected. We were unfunded at the time, but in the coming weeks the NSF provided us emergency funding because of the scientific emergency need there. Prior to being a faculty member, I worked for the US Army and in research positions examining chemical fate in plumbing systems including decontamination. You can find our experiences on our website http://www.southce.org/ajwhelton and those for which I was asked by West Virginia Governor Tomblin to assist the state respond at http://www.WVTAPprogram.com.
In West Virginia, before being called in by the West Virginia Governor’s office to assist them, my university team discovered that the plumbing system flushing protocol endorsed by the State, EPA, CDC, water utility, and health departments caused many people (including myself and a student) to become ill. When we arrived residents were being told to flush their plumbing systems using this protocol. My team and I flushed several resident homes in an effort to determine how well the method worked.
Of the many issues with the West Virginia protocol, flushing hot water was recommended [bad idea], only flushing one time for 15 minutes was recommended [bad idea], and the protocol was never field tested to see if it worked so the population tested it on themselves [bad idea]. There were many other issues with this protocol which did not warn people about personal safety (gloves, masks, chemical sensitivity, pregnant individuals), rooms with poor or no ventilation (no windows, vent fans, etc.) [bad, bad ideas]. Nonetheless, none of the Federal and State organizations involved expressed concern about this before the 300,000 residents were directed to flush their plumbing systems. I pasted a weblink to the West Virginia protocol below. DO NOT directly apply the West Virginia approach in Toledo.
During the next week, you will embark on an effort to recover your plumbing systems and purge this contaminated water. Officials will ask you to take certain actions. It is critically important what you are told to do does NOT expose you or your family to harmful vapors. The Crude MCHM contaminated tap water in West Virginia had a very sharp, intense licorice odor. You could tell if you were being exposed. [In Toledo, microcystin and its degradation products, to my knowledge, do not have odor.] EPA, CDC, West Virginia, and the water utility in West Virginia all endorsed the flushing protocol that exposed West Virginians (and my team) to chemical vapors. No agency objected to the protocol which ultimately harmed some people. It is not logical to think that Ohio will be different if the same organizations are involved. Even more, information about who’s actually providing technical assistance to the responders is not even available. It could be some of the exact same people. You should ask the officials to know who is involved in this response and what their justifications are for the decisions they make.
During the West Virginia incident, the US National Science Foundation provided my team RAPID funding to provide guidance on how to flush chemically contaminated plumbing systems. We conducted RAPID experiments to obtain data, tested tap water in homes, and made some very important discoveries. Some of those are listed above and others below.
External parties should provide feedback on the protocol (not just people in the Emergency Operations Center or affiliated government agencies).
All buried water assets should be purged of contaminated water….but assume some were not fully decon’d because of the complexity of the buried water distribution system.
A protocol should be developed and pilot tested at a few homes (not government buildings). This would help officials headoff any unexpected issues (see West Virginia).
Water testing before during and after flushing several homes should be conducted to determine its effectiveness. This will take 2-4 days. If this is not done, Toledo residents run the risk of being another example of what happens when responders ask you to see if the protocol works before they test it. Do not be their experiment.
There are more recommendations…You can download an excerpt from our 2014 AWWA West Virginia presentation where we discussed some of our flushing findings here: Whelton WV pres for OH.
Drinking water contamination incidents are specialized crises. They require individuals with specialized skills not simply organizational affiliations. It is critically important your officials engage experts who know what to think about…and what not to do. There is a step-wise process for responding/ investigating, and recovering from an incident like you are experiencing. The playbook should not be written on the fly.
I have offered my assistance to the Ohio Governor’s Office, State Agencies, Mayor’s office, Health Department, and water utility because I truly want to make certain you, your family, and friend’s health is protected. There is no reason why you cannot benefit from the lessons we learned in West Virginia.
Andrew J. Whelton, Ph.D.
–DO NOT FOLLOW THE WEST VIRGINIA DIRECTIONS–
West Virginia flushing directions [---NOT RECOMMENDED FOR TOLEDO---] here: WV – How to flush
Grad student LaKia McMillan samples water inside a West Virginia home in January 2014 as part of our NSF funded plumbing system decontamination project.