"It's your decision. If you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking with this water, then use bottled water." That is the inadequate advice West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin gave to the 300,000 (and growing) people affected by the toxic chemical disaster.
As shocking as it was to hear Gov. Tomblin tell people they were on their own when it comes to assessing risk of exposure to toxic chemicals, he and other state officials are just vocalizing our nation's chemical-management policy. Whether the rivers of West Virginia or the toxic chemicals in our babies' bath soap, in our kids' lunches, in the very air we breathe, too often our government says, "It's your decision." And just like the good people of West Virginia (and now other locations downstream), we have little to no information on what we're being exposed to and what the short- and long-term health risks are.
The Centers for Disease Control now believes pregnant women should have been told not to drink the water until it was clear of all chemicals. Talk about too little too late.
Imagine if other systems we depend on were this broken. Imagine if your doctor said to you, "Here's a medication. I don't know what's in it. It hasn't been tested. Its use and dissemination are subjected to almost no regulations. But it might make you or your child better. Or might harm your family. It's your decision. Good luck!"
That's not how the standard for medicine works. That's not how public health works. In the absence of evidence of safety, we take a precautionary approach. Any public health student can tell you the story of John Snow, the physician who, before the germ theory had been established, managed to stop a devastating cholera epidemic in London in 1854 by tracing the disease to water from a neighborhood pump and convincing skeptical officials that the pump handle should be removed to stop further exposure. This precautionary approach saved countless lives.
Leaders in West Virginia should have immediately taken the handle off the pump. In the face of uncertainty about the health effects of exposure to these chemicals in the water supply, they should have erred on the side of precaution and protected people from potential harm. They should have declared that the water must be proven safe, with no uncertainty, before people should drink or cook with it or bathe in it.
But those protective measures are not happening. For industry defenders, this spill is all about them. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin is empathizing with the coal and chemical industries. "You feel like everyone's turned against you," he told a gathering at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Sen. Manchin, in his former position as Governor of West Virginia, sued the EPA to block stronger water pollution rules. Freedom Industries, owner of the tank that leaked the chemicals into the river, hasn't said much at all, but did speedily file for bankruptcy protection. All the while, people are drinking the water.
Leaders in Congress need to step up and provide leadership. They need to stop grandstanding about whether this is about coal or chemicals or above-ground storage tank construction. They need to focus on making things better for the 300,000 people immediately affected by the chemical spill, as well as the rest of us, who are just one spill away from finding unknown and untested chemicals in our water. Congress must fix the broken laws regulating chemicals in this country so that we can know that chemicals have been proven safe before they are put on the market.
Saying "it's your decision" is abdicating government's responsibility to protect us. It's declaring that the chemical industry is in charge, that our only chance for protection is for each and every one of us to become toxicologists and assess risk in our tap water, in the beauty aisle, at the supermarket.
One thing that should be our decision: what our elected officials focus on and whether they get to stay in office if they fail to listen. All of us need to let them know we demand meaningful chemical policy reform that protects public health. Let's get to work to make sure no pregnant woman in the United States has to worry that, following advice of officials, she has exposed herself to potentially toxic chemicals in her drinking water.