Anarchy: The Aftermath of the Delaware Water Chemical Spill
The lack of water safety is a critical global issue, and the spread of easily accessible water information is imperative to combat it.
April 6, 2023
8 min read; 1288 words
Tags: Energy Policy
Author: Joey Wu
Walking into the grocery store, I saw row after row of empty shelves. Every bottle of water had been swept away as crowds rushed through in a hurried panic. Fear, worry, and uncertainty dawned upon Philadelphia.
Just over a week ago on Sunday, March 26, a chemical plant spilled 8100 gallons of latex product into the Delaware River. With public advisory warnings flashing on the face of all phones, residents were suddenly sent into an anxious frenzy. For the first time in their lives, a lot of people lost access to a critical resource – water.
With officials taking measurements from the Baxter Drinking Water Treatment Plant, a source eight miles downstream of the spill, continuous updates provided little relief to the situation. Although contaminants were not found over the following three days, a wave of public distrust in tap water had already swept through local communities throughout Philadelphia.
The average person uses 101.5 gallons of water every single day, an astounding statistic. With that in mind, you can only imagine how impactful shifting opinions would be on daily life. With a common pollutant recently highlighted in the tragic Ohio East Palestine Train Derailment, public worry and water insecurity reached an all-time peak.
[WATERSHEDS + POLLUTION SCIENCE]:
Philadelphia is part of the Delaware River Watershed. A watershed is the area of land that drains into the same basin; in this case, every part of the watershed eventually drains back into the Delaware River. For most of Philadelphia and surrounding areas, this watershed has shared impacts. In the grand scheme of the water cycle, this means that aquatic inputs are all connected. Contamination at any point in the watershed could potentially impact other regions far away, so long as they are linked by the same water body.
Being upstream from a contamination event means that water movement is towards the polluted site, so that the spill is moving away from your population. On the other hand, being downstream means that contaminants are moving towards your population. In the case of the Delaware River spill, Philadelphia was moderately downstream from the contaminant spill.
Another important note to consider is the concept of dilution. Chemical contaminants are characterized by their concentration, or the given amount per unit of water. Much like adding salt to water, a spoonful into a cup will be easily noticeable while adding the same amount of salt into a lake wouldn’t change a thing. With the large magnitude of water bodies like rivers, chemicals are dispersed throughout and are diluted, simultaneously reducing hazardous impact and treatment efficiency. Based on the contaminant concentration and the discharge rate (velocity of the water column for a given area), a ‘chemical load’ can be calculated to see chemical exposure rates. Based on the Total Maximum Daily Load set by environmental regulations, water impairment can be measured.
Lastly, the time of exposure influences impacts on human health. Acute exposure is a short contact with chemicals, while chronic exposure represents the long-term buildup of chemical contact.
Understanding the position of the chemical on the stream, the concentration, the time of exposure, and the nature of the chemicals is imperative to assessing the overall hazard risk.
The latex company Trinseo specializes in creating special waterproof coatings for textiles and medicinal machinery. These chemicals are not suitable for human ingestion. In total, three major chemical groups were in the spill:
Ethyl acrylate: used in water-based latex paints and coatings, this chemical causes drowsiness, respiratory irritation, headaches, and nausea. It is a probable carcinogen under EPA standards and enters based on inhalation and dermal contact.
Methyl methacrylate: used to create resins and plastics, this chemical causes skin/eye irritation, and allergic reactions. Exposure is from dermal contact, inhalation of vapors, or contaminated water. While not a carcinogen, the chemical has been found to cause fetal abnormalities in animals.
Butyl acrylate: used in paints and polymer resins, this chemical causes skin/eye burning, headaches, dizziness, and lung damage (chronic). This chemical is associated with dermal contact and vapor inhalation.
As Penn students, were we really impacted by the spill? No.
Defined above, the contaminant spill was dilute (low concentration) and would only present acute exposure. Although the spill was slightly upstream of central Philadelphia, the city was situated out of range for any lasting profound impacts. In this case, critical factors to consider are environmental impacts and the social disparity.
Environmentally, biomagnification and bioaccumulation may pose a concern in the future. Bioaccumulation is where contaminants build up in an organism’s body over time, leading to adverse effects. With latex chemicals being incredibly durable (hard to break down naturally), they will stay in the environment and accumulate in aquatic species. As these contaminants move up trophic levels (from predation), the concentrations will exponentially magnify through biomagnification.
Socially, this incident displayed the socioeconomic gap between regions of Philadelphia. Climate change affects people disproportionately based on social status. In the recent case, people with the financial means bought cases of bottled water and drove away from the incident to access water resources. However, those reliant on the tap water had no choice but to utilize what they perceived to be ‘unsafe’ water. Just this simple example illustrates how global climate change will harm certain populations more than others. With water being a critical resource for daily life, the idea that some people can’t have safe access to it is quite shocking.
Lastly, this environmental disaster displayed how little information was easily accessible to constituents in Philadelphia. With the city preferring to take a more cautious approach and releasing uncertain aspects of safety, even students at a top university like Penn were scrambling to figure out exactly what was going on. Although messages such as water will be safe until ___ night indicated that the pollutants would take time to reach downstream, the lack of open awareness about water systems displays what little emphasis most people place upon a resource they always consider to be constant. In this generation, there is an imminent need for common, accessible water safety information.
[WHY DOES THIS MATTER?]:
All around the world but mostly in low-income countries, 1 in 10 people lack access to clean water. That is 771 million people.
Four billion people go through extreme water scarcity for at least a month each year. The deaths from unsafe water sources reach up to 1.2 million people a year.
With so many contaminants and waterborne diseases wiping out populations, water safety is not only a scientific issue, but a socioeconomic trend. Climate change will continue to polarize both ends of extreme weather: heavier floods and longer droughts. Unless we take action to quickly address and alleviate water insecurity issues, the problems will only grow further out of hand.
[HOW YOU CAN HELP]:
To support this issue, it is important to gain more awareness about water issues across the world. With most of us being privileged enough to never have to worry about water safety, it’s often difficult to realize how immense and difficult the problem of global water security is. By gaining awareness of these problems and considering them in the future, you will create a global impact more than you could ever imagine and directly combat an issue that would persist otherwise.
The chemical spill into the Delaware River provided a glimpse into the complex reality that most people must navigate through on a daily basis. Since the spilled contaminants only influenced us through ingestion, our safety for bathing, cleaning, and general non-drinking purposes were always ensured. If there had been more serious contaminants, the entire way we approached life would have been changed. Had the problem persisted, we can only imagine how difficult everyday tasks would become.
Joey Wu is a sophomore studying bioengineering and environmental science (VIPER) at the University of Pennsylvania.