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Making Water Safe


Michael McCawley at a water treatment plant.

Questions by Mikenna Pierotti

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West Virginia University toxicologist Michael McCawley, MS ’74, Engineering, has spent his more than 30-year career working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. His work is particularly important in light of the recent water contamination crisis in Flint, Mich.

What public health issues concern you the most right now?

The world makes more chemicals than it has toxicological data on every single day. There are thousands to millions of new chemicals being made all the time. But the toxicological data, how those chemicals will affect humans and the environment, lags enormously. So you could have a bottle of something, and you may know its chemical formula, but you have no idea what the toxicological tests will say about it. For example, you can know the chemical composition of things like methyl-alcohol and ethyl-alcohol. They differ by just one carbon atom. But in the body, ethyl-alcohol will make you drunk. And methyl-alcohol will make you blind.

So we are making these chemicals without knowing exactly what will happen if they get out in the environment? Sounds like a Pandora’s box.

Right. If they get out in the environment, what level of protection do we need? How do we make those decisions when we don’t know how toxic these chemicals are? You may have some idea about a chemical’s toxicity, but other people may have differing opinions on that. There’s no way to know for sure without more complete toxicological data, which takes time to amass. 

Where do you draw the line? 

One way would be the precautionary principle. This is a philosophy that’s been around for a long time. It basically says that you should treat something as if it is dangerous until you know for sure whether it is or not. The precautionary principle is, as a rule, not applied to law in the United States. But it is applied to laws in other countries, particularly in the European Union. Recently there has been some debate as to whether we should take a look at the precautionary principle and see what we can learn from what other countries are doing, especially when it comes to source water protection — the places people get their drinking water. In West Virginia, there are citizen action groups talking about source water protection right now, and we believe some of their recommendations may end up going to the state legislature for consideration. 

That reminds me of the situation in Flint, Mich., right now, where the acidity of the tap water allegedly caused lead to erode from pipes and poison the water supply. What happened there? 

In Flint, part of the problem was that there was disagreement as to how much of a problem the acidity would cause. Different people had different views. If they had a precautionary principle in place, they would have said: “We need to test first. We need more information before we use this new water source.” But with current regulations in the United States, it’s up to the regulatory agency to decide whether or not to test. The problem is that people will always differ on what they think is a sufficient level of caution. Some will say there are risks involved in everything. And the bureaucracy is always good at 20/20 hindsight. Unfortunately, once you’ve made the mistake, you’ve made the mistake. And people will pay a price for it. That’s what happened in Flint. The children of the city of Flint are going to pay that price.

What sort of action needs to happen to help prevent future disasters?

Believe it or not, I tend to lean more toward caution. I am a toxicologist and, as a scientist, I know what could go wrong. So I can try to inform others about the risks. But in making the decision, that’s up to the political system, which, in the end, is up to the people. People taking part in their political system is really essential. We should be making sure we always have a voice in the decision-making process.

For example, in West Virginia, many people are concerned about natural gas compressor stations. But before they locate one of these stations, companies will hold a public hearing if people ask for it. You just have to read the newspaper and watch for things like that. You have to speak up.

Even more importantly is knowing who to speak to. In the case of natural gas pipelines, there is a whole regulatory agency that most people have never even heard of. But they take part in all the decisions on where the pipelines go. That agency is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Unless you really get involved and get into the weeds looking at the issues, you’ll probably never hear about them. Yet, in most cases, this agency actually supersedes the Environmental Protection Agency.

Luckily, if you know about FERC, you can ask that this agency have a presence in one of these public hearings and then you can talk to them. But you have to ask for it. You have to know to request them.

In this way, what you don’t know really can hurt you. People need to do all they can to stay aware. Because while you hope these agencies and companies have your best interests in mind, they can’t know what your best interests are if they don’t hear from you.

Most people wouldn’t think a career in public health or toxicology would be so dangerous. Is it really true you’ve been face-to-face with death a few times?

I worked with the CDC for over 27 years. I got my first major disaster when I was siting in a scientific conference in Houston, Texas, on a Monday morning. They got up at the plenary session and said: “Mount St. Helens has just erupted. And the state of Washington would like to hear from anyone who knows anything about sampling dust around volcanoes.” I looked at the guy sitting next to me and I said: “Who in their right mind is going to go sample dust around an active volcano?” The next week my boss brought me and told me, “ You will.”

I got out there and the folks who owned the property around Mount St. Helens were showing us around. They drove us up to the mountain, and I thought I’d just be able to stick my head out the window and see it from a distance. But when we got there they pointed up and there it was looming over us.

They told me the geologists could give our team about a 30-minute warning before the next eruption. But it would probably take 45 minutes or more to evacuate us. At that point you just say, “Oh, well.” And you get on with the work. When we got back from the mountain, I learned we’d missed another eruption by just a couple of hours.

Another instance occurred in December of 1984. I was working on a study looking at mines that were using diesel equipment. I was in Price, Utah. We were supposed to go underground into the first mine during the morning shift and take samples. Then we’d break, have dinner topside and then go down into the second mine for the midnight shift.

When we came out of the first mine, it was snowing heavily. The road going to Price was windy, and we were in a truck that was not well equipped for driving in the snow. All through dinner we watched the snow pile up. Finally, I said to everyone, “You know, I don’t think I should take everyone underground tonight. Because when we come out, we’ll have a two-hour drive down a windy road in a blizzard, and we’ll be running on no sleep. That sounds kind of dangerous.”

Turns out that was a good decision, because the next morning, after we got back to Salt Lake City, my phone was ringing as I walked into my hotel room. It was my boss in Morgantown. He didn’t say “Hello,” or “How’s it going?” The first words out of his mouth, I still remember, were, “You’re alive? You didn’t go underground last night?” I said, “No.” I thought he was talking about the weather conditions. But he said, “It’s a good thing you didn’t go down into the mine last night. It caught fire during the midnight shift. And they don’t expect survivors.”

The third instance I can tell you about didn’t happen in this country. You see, I have a dual background in both air pollution and occupational health. So after the Gulf War, when all the oil wells in Kuwait were on fire and there was all this oil smoke everywhere, they called us in to take samples of the air.

When we got there, all we saw was this plume of smoke spread out over the entire country. They were perfectly black clouds. When you drove under those clouds, it was like driving into blackness, into midnight. And all you could see was a dim line of white on the horizon — that was the only daylight.

We set up out in the desert. But the sampling stations we were supposed to check on, well, they were out in the middle of mine fields. Luckily the army had come along and put up flags marking the safest paths to the stations. But it was still completely dark, and we were supposed to stay in that path, this fuzzy little line that went back and forth. The whole time it felt like we were dancing. Dancing in the mine fields.

I just put the danger out of my head. In fact, that’s what I did throughout most     of my career. I just knew it was going to be interesting.

You’ve also been involved in recent public health crises in West Virginia, like the Elk River chemical spill in 2014. What did you learn from that event and what role did you and the School of Public health play after the disaster?

We sent a group of our students to the affected area to help with sampling. The state later came back and asked if WVU had a volunteer expert who could come down and be part of a commission the state put together to study the Elk River spill and what can be done about it. I ended up being one of those commissioners.

But when all of it started, it was not clear what the School Public Health’s role was going to be. In fact, the Elk River Spill really helped define that. Now, if there’s something going on in the state related to health and environment, WVU and the School of Public Health are going to be there and we are going to be part of it. We will have our hands up in the air the first time they ask for volunteers.