Bioethics Blogs

Crossing Boundaries: Making Sense with the Sense-able by Christy Spackman

A black plastic garbage bag, held in place by masking tape, covered the drinking fountain jutting out from the brick wall. It was an incongruous sight in the otherwise clean, carpeted church hallway on the outskirts of Charleston, West Virginia. The thick covering separated observer from object, simultaneously hiding and calling attention to what it ostensibly sought to obfuscate. “[Facilities and Maintenance] still haven’t replaced the filters,” I was told, as I sopped up the syrup under my pancake and drank bottled water with the congregation members. “The bag is to keep anyone from accidentally drinking contaminated water.”

Five months earlier (on January 9th, 2014), the county’s municipal water supply was abruptly declared off limits for all use due to contamination with crude MCHM (4-methylchycloheanemethanol), a chemical used in the cleaning of coal. No brushing teeth with the water. No showers. No clothes washing. One could still flush the toilet, but even then it was advised to avoid standing over the toilet. Underlying these restrictions was an uncomfortable reality: no one knew whether the chemical threatened human health, and if so, at what levels.

Remembering to follow the blanket restriction on use did not come easily. “I would forget and brush my teeth with it,” one coal-worker who lived at the end of the water distribution line told me, noting that he’d gotten the chemical all over himself at work before. A retired nurse living at the top of a hill reported that her neighbors had complained of the smell, but she never noticed it.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.