A recent issue of Wired magazine features a science blog by Deborah Blum on the toxicity of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM). It is a well-written piece of history and current information by a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer.
Reading the blog made me, as a chemist, feel ashamed of the harms that have been visited upon our society by the chemical industry and those who have made use of chemicals over the past many decades. It would be so easy to simply eschew personal responsibility for the many environmental sins, past and present. After all, what can I, as a resident of the state of Florida, do about a mess that has been made in West Virginia? But that mess, as with many others all over the country, exists because we lack laws, regulations, and enforcement that would have prevented them from occurring.
We lack those laws and enforcements in part because we chemists, who among all the citizens of this society should be most knowledgeable, have been negligent in our moral obligations to be proactive. We have not made it our business to advocate for stricter regulation of the production and uses of chemicals. Nor have we advocated for more vigorous monitoring and more ardent prosecution at all levels of government of those who put us in harm’s way through practices that pursue profits at the expense of our well-being. Our obligations extend to informing our fellow citizens, through every means available: letters and phone calls to our legislators and to the editor of our local paper, blogs, participation in local environmental group efforts, and so on. But of course, to be informative we must be informed, and that takes commitment.
Finally, we can and should ask: What is the American Chemical Society doing? Where does it stand? How much of its resources are being deployed to make this a safer world? The answer, I fear, is not much. Again, where is the commitment?
Theodore L. BrownI've been meaning to write on this awhile now, but this letter is a good chance to state my qualms on this approach: where does the moral, legal and/or financial obligations end for chemists, with respect to chemicals that they sell? So far as I can tell, the root causes of the West Virginia disaster (i.e. an entire metropolitan area unable to use its drinking water for um, drinking) were as follows:
Bonita Springs, Fla.
- The inability of the local municipal water source to be able to filter out MCHM at the water source, or the failure to stop the distribution of MCHM-contaminated water from the plant in time.
- The siting of a municipal water source downstream from a tank farm, or the placement of a tank farm upstream from a municipal water source. (whichever came first)
- The failure of secondary containment efforts at Freedom Industries.
- The failure of the primary MCHM tank.