On January 9, 2014, an uncharacterized chemical mixture known as crude-MCHM (4-methylcyclohexane methanol) leaked into the Elk River, the surface water supply for Charleston, West Virginia. The chemical smelled. Many described the smell as black licorice. Over the next days, weeks, and months a divide emerged between official responses to the spill—which relied on calculation and instrumental measurement—and everyday experiences. Even as instruments and screening protocols declared the water safe for use, sniffing noses and tasting mouths indicated otherwise.1Christy Spackman, “In Smell’s Shadow: Materials and Politics at the Edge of Perception,” Social Studies of Science 50, no. 3 (2020): 418–439.
This divide appeared most strongly not during the initial spill. Rather it showed up as people followed official instructions from their water supplier, West Virginia American Water, to flush the chemical out of their homes. By that point, measured levels of crude-MCHM in the water had fallen below the rapidly developed screening level the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had developed. In theory, flushing marked the beginning of the end of the crisis, the final step to returning to normalcy. The instructions, “How to Flush Your Plumbing System,” asked residential customers to “complete the steps in the order set out below. Finish each step completely before moving on to the next step” (Figure 1). First customers were to flush all hot-water taps for 15 minutes, then all cold-water taps for five, then all remaining faucets and appliances. “Any lingering smell, which is expected, is not a health issue,” the guidelines noted.
And there is the rub. Can lingering, unexpected, or even pleasing smells be harmful? Lori Kersey reported in the West Virginia Gazette-Mail on January 15, 2014, that local emergency rooms were crowded with people afflicted with rashes, headaches, upset stomachs, and diarrhea. The sufferers attributed these symptoms to the strong “licorice-like” odors that came out of faucets during flushing. In contrast, some of the people I interviewed later that spring recalled nothing noticeable during the flushing; for them, the ongoing concerns and complaints seemed a sort of “mass hysteria.” The odor circulated unevenly through the community. Its presence afflicted some, and slid beyond the perceptual capabilities of others. Those disparities were rooted in both physiological and material differences woven throughout Charleston’s inhabitants and water infrastructure.
Smell’s presence and absence in Charleston’s water, as well as its presence and absence in the public and private spaces water traveled through, delineated the crisis’s boundaries. This dual presence and absence, where odor could be identified by certain people in certain places and times, but not by others—be they neighbors or people living on the other side of a city (or the other end of a month)—points toward another set of boundaries: those between research that is generalizable, and research that remains obdurately linked to specific moments.
Disparities between tests and smells
News reports of side effects from the flushing caught the attention of Andrew Whelton, then a professor at the University of Alabama. Trained as a civil engineer with a focus on environmental processes and engineering, Whelton worked for three and a half years with the US Army on drinking water disaster preparedness response and antiterrorism operations before completing a PhD studying chemical transport in plastic piping. For Whelton, the reports of health effects circulating via regional and national news called for additional research, for the generation of evidence that moved beyond the “anecdotal” register of embodied effects produced by an odor or the daily screening efforts of those monitoring the spill.“Embodied responses to the smell complicated acceptance of data produced by the CDC and others.”
From a distance, producing evidence about the chemical’s presence and absence appeared a straightforward scientific problem, although one exacerbated by the offending company’s insistence that the actual composition of the chemical spilled was a trade secret. However, embodied responses to the smell complicated acceptance of data produced by the CDC and others. Embodied responses showed that the approach taken by the CDC, the water company, and others had largely failed to account for the intimate spaces where water lubricates everyday life in the early twenty-first century.
Whelton noted that, “While we were up there, we discovered if you followed the water company’s flushing guidance that they listed, you actually became chemically exposed to the tap water. I became dizzy, one of my student’s had his eyes burning, and at that point we realized that [officials and responders] did not understand what they were dealing with.”2Andrew Whelton, interview by author, August 11, 2014. Many of the people he and his graduate students spoke with as they conducted pro-bono tests of tap water after their January 17 arrival in Charleston worried about flushing their homes. Reports of friends getting rashes, becoming, ill, smelling a strong black licorice odor, dizziness, or numbness shaped those worries.3Whelton told me during our August 11, 2014, interview that they had “80 requests within six hours from homeowners asking us to come in and sample their homes and help them flush.” In total, they visited 16 of the 80 homes that signed up, Andrew J. Whelton et al., “Residential Tap Water Contamination Following the Freedom Industries Chemical Spill: Perceptions, Water Quality, and Health Impacts,” Environmental Science & Technology 49, no. 2 (2015): 813–23. Obediently following the flushing procedure, the researchers learned, engaged their own bodies in unanticipated ways; an in-place, visceral validation of residents’ anecdotal accounts, this time measured by bodies that would by the end of the month carry scientific legitimacy embodied in the award of an NSF RAPID grant.
Calculation and measurement initially failed to account for how smelly molecules materially and affectively operate. The PVC pipes that have come to make up so much of home plumbing systems since the 1970s actively absorbed and desorbed chemicals rather than statically remaining inert. “We know that chemicals interact with plastics, organic chemicals interact with plastics, more so than metals,” Whelton told me. He pointed out that:
Plumbing systems are very complex, comprised of numerous types of plastics with different rigidities, which basically goes back to how widely that material can be permeated by certain compounds. PVC, for example, is a glassy material at room temperature; it’s almost stiff as a board. And there’s another material called PEX, cross-linked polyethylene, that is a rubber material that can be snaked behind walls very easily. [It’s] not as rigid as PVC, and that material is more likely to be permeated by organic materials than PVC is.
For Whelton, this material understanding of home plumbing as constantly engaged in systems of exchange, where chemicals are absorbed from and desorbed into the water supply, shaped his interpretation of the reported postflushing experiences of smelling crude MCHM. Crude-MCHM’s lingering presence, made perceptible by its extremely low aqueous odor threshold, drew together the past weeks of disruption and discomfort with a future-facing concern about the chemical’s long-term impacts. One resident tweeted to reporter Dave Boucher on January 14, “@Dave_Boucher1 I’m a post-flusher and I’m not touching the stuff—still reeks. I won’t drink it until the dog does.” An elderly couple I interviewed noted that, “When we flushed the lines we picked up the odor really bad. It was worse after the flushing.”4Interview by author, May 27, 2014. Months later, one of them still refused to drink the city water. Cafeteria workers at Stonewall Jackson Middle School switched to bottled water and the stovetop for cooking vegetables, because the steamer continued to give off a “sweet licorice, sickening licorice” odor for weeks. Analytical results may have showed the water free from crude MCHM, but some inhabitants’ noses perceived otherwise, creating an affective trail that imprinted daily behavior long after visible markers of the crisis disappeared.
Considering differing experiences“Like the materials they studied, the researchers, too, found their bodies actively engaged in a material exchange with crude MCHM.”
The re-emergence of the odor of crude MCHM days and weeks after chemical analysis demonstrated the molecule was gone (at levels detectable by technology, but still perceptible to many human noses) recreated the leak. It did so at an individual rather than a mass scale, and in a form very different from the initial leak. The re-emergence of the odor extended and transformed the effects of the initial disaster. This time, the presence of crude MCHM was due to inhabitants obediently following official directives in their homes and businesses, rather than the result of a faceless entity’s negligence. Affective public response to the ongoing smell of crude MCHM in homes—as viewed through Twitter and other online forums, Ohio State doctoral student Krista Bryson’s YouTube interviews with residents, as well as the personal interviews I conducted—lampooned elected state and federal officials for their failure to coherently and effectively deal with the reappearance of the smell. For the out-of-state researchers, participation in the flushing process resituated them. Like the materials they studied, the researchers, too, found their bodies actively engaged in a material exchange with crude MCHM. Embodied reactions triggered by the volatilized chemical’s presence entered the researchers—at least partially—into the affective register where physiological transduction of a chemical presence bumps up against the official systems that determine action or inaction.
Variation in consumers’ sensory experiences post flushing, where some smelled the licorice-like odor and others didn’t, entered into an already-present infrastructure of knowledge production in water management. In this infrastructure, sensory encounters, while acknowledged as potential sentinel devices,5Andrea M. Dietrich, “Aesthetic Issues for Drinking Water,” Journal of Water and Health 4, no. S1 (2006): 11–16. call for scientific validation to confirm the presence of a known contaminant. Indeed, subsequent research conducted elsewhere demonstrated that the threshold for perception was well below instrumental detection levels.6Michael McGuire, I.H. (Mel) Suffet, and Jeffrey Rosen, “Consumer Panel Estimates of Odor Thresholds for Crude 4‐methylcyclohexanemethanol,” Journal of the American Water Works Association 106, no. 10 (October 2014): E445–58. Yet, the West Virginia case shows the critical need for not just ethnographic research done in place, but all science done in place. Rather than assuming a uniformity to the water circulating throughout the Charleston-area water supply, the West Virginia case highlighted how water’s microlocality wove together different building materials spread throughout the region with individual sensing bodies and those sensing bodies’ memories formed before, during, and after the crisis’s initial days. This close coupling of infrastructure, body, and memory, and the long-term implications of that connection largely disappeared in the research questions asked about the spill. The West Virginia case invites research done elsewhere, in times of normalcy or otherwise, to resist the urge to only produce knowledge that can be generalizable. Instead, it suggests that research can and should have two parts, parts that can circulate, and parts that insist on staying tied to the places where that knowledge was produced.
Banner photo: Cotton Puryear/Virginia National Guard Public Affairs