A chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia points to how clean water in the 21st century is rapidly becoming a scarcer commodity worldwide.
NBC affiliate WSAZ reports that the chemical that leaked was 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. It is used in the coal mining process. The chemical leaked from a tank, escaped a containment area and went into the river near a water treatment plant.
The chemical can cause severe burning in throat, skin irritation and blistering, nonstop vomiting, trouble breathing and eye irritation. People in the area have reported a licorice-like smell in the streets, authorities said.
About 300,000 people have been urged not to drink the water, use it to wash clothes, bathe or cook. West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has declared a state of emergency Thursday.
Schools and hotels have been closed. Water supplies are being shipped into the community.
Industrial accidents like this threaten water supplies for people worldwide. In many countries the water isn’t fit for consumption.
In a 2008 Report on the Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation, UNICEF and the World Health Organization note that 884 million people do not have access to safe water supplies. This translates to about an eighth of the world's population.
An Environmental Protection Agency report in 1996 said that about 40 percent of surveyed lakes, rivers and estuaries in the U.S. were too polluted for drinking, fishing and swimming. Industrial pollutants in the water include asbestos, phosphates, mercury, lead, nitrates, petrochemicals, caustic soda, sodium compounds, sulfur and sulfuric acid.
Chemical spills like the one in West Virginia just add to the already growing problem.