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USA graduate team researches chemical spill in West Virginia

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N1Graduate students Keven Kelley and Lakia McMillan test drinking water at a home in West Virginia Jan. 17.USA professors and students are part of the research team sent to aid the Charleston, W.Va., community after a chemical spill contaminated drinking water for more than 300,000 people.
The spill, which occurred Jan. 9, leaked around 10,000 gallons of crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), according to the National Science Foundation’s website. The spill occurred upriver of a water treatment facility, effectively poisoning the drinking water that runs to 15 percent of West Virginia’s residents.
Two weeks after the spill, Freedom Industries revealed to the public that there was a second chemical released during the spill. Known as PPH, the chemical performs the same function as MCHM. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement saying, although there is not much information on PPH, the apparent lower toxicity does not seem to represent any new health risks.
The team sent to help included Dr. Andrew Whelton, an assistant professor of environmental engineering, Dr. Kevin White, chair of civil engineering, and graduate students Matt Connell, Jeff Gill, Keven Kelly and Lakia McMillan.
Homeowners were faced with uncertainty after the spill due to distrust of information being released to the public, said Whelton in an interview published on Whelton and the team took steps to educate citizens affected by the spill, and instruct homeowners on how to flush plumbing systems to get rid of any harsh chemicals within their systems.
The entire team took this trip without any funding or any obligation to do so, Whelton said in an interview on He said, “We’re coming in unfunded to help mainly because there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism yet where money can support this type of scientific need that this community seriously deserves.”
The research team from South Alabama garnered national attention shortly after helping the stricken community. Whelton was interviewed by CBS’s Evening News with Scott Pelley. The group was also mentioned in The Huffington Post and The New York Times among others.
The National Science Foundation also took notice of the team’s work, awarding the group of researchers the funding to study the effects and absorption of MCHM by plastic pipes.
According to the National Science Foundation, the main challenge for authorities managing the spill has been how little researchers know about the chemical and how it interacts with other substances. “Chemicals tend to absorb more into plastic pipes than metal pipes,” Whelton said. “Plastic pipes can act as a sponge, sucking up chemicals.”
Currently Whelton and a group of researchers are in West Virginia studying water samples from homes. No state or federal organization has conducted in-home drinking water testing despite declaring the water safe inside affected homes, according to Whelton’s website. To learn more or find out how you can help, visit Whelton’s website at



Written by Jason Ruffin | Contributing Writer

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