January 13, 2014 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

When a glass of milk tips over, that’s a spill. When thousands of gallons of a chemical used to separate coal from rock, flows into the source water of 300,000 West Virginia residents, it is not a spill, it’s a public health emergency.

Headlines from this weekend’s Charleston (WV) Gazette describe the story on the ground:

  • “State ignored plan for tougher chemical oversight” (here)
  • “Wasn’t there a plan?” (here)
  • “What is ‘Crude MCHM’? Few know” (here)

  • “Crisis pulls back curtain on water threats” (here)
  • “Water being given out in many locations, updated list” (here)
  • “Without water, soup kitchens still seving hungry” (here)
  • “Restaurants with approved water plans may open soon” (here)
  • “Testing continues, causing low water pressure” (here)
  • “Scientists ID amount of chemical they consider safe” (here)

The WV Department of Environmental Protection current estimate is 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) leaked into the Elk River. The Gazette’s Ken Ward earlier explained that a “concrete-block dike, meant to serve as secondary containment, also leaked, allowing an undetermined amount of the chemical into the Elk River.” The waterway is the source for the locality’s water treatment plant, which is just 1.5 miles downstream from Freedom Industries’ chemical plant.  The storage tanks and dike are part of the firm’s Etowah River Terminal. Gazette reporters also note the site’s storage capacity for MCHM is 4 million gallons.

The question many residents have been asking for days is “how is this chemical going to affect my health and my kids’ health?” State and federal officials have been scrambling to answer that question.

Reporters have been pointing to the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for MCHM,  but finding it offers much too little on the health risks of exposure to the compound. Its manufacturer can simply say “No specific information is available in our database regarding the toxic effects of this material for humans.”  The rules that govern MSDSs require manufacturers to report specifically on carcinogenic and mutagenic effects and developmental toxicity. But if the firm hasn’t conducted any studies, or is not aware of any studies, they can simply note: “not available.”

As Richard Denison and Jennifer McPartland of the Environmental Defense Fund explain

“The sad truth is this chemical [MCHM] is one of tens of thousands of chemicals on the market today with little or no safety data. MCHM is one of the 62,000 chemicals that were already in use when TSCA, our nation’s main chemical safety law, was passed in 1976.”

“All of these chemicals were grandfathered by TSCA: That means they were simply presumed to be safe, and EPA was given no mandate to determine whether they are actually safe. Even to require testing of these chemicals under TSCA, EPA must first provide evidence that the chemical may pose a risk – a toxic Catch-22.”

The victims of this particular toxic Catch-22 are the 300,000 WV residents who drank water containing MCHM. Hopefully they will not face any long-term health effects from the exposure. I fear it is too much to hope that lawmakers see how this event is a poster child for the inadequacies in our nation’s policies on toxic chemicals—-from the health risk testing required, to the placement and inspection of chemical storage facilities.


One thought on “Let’s not call it a “spill,” thousands of gallons of MCHM in water supply of 300,000 West Virginians

  1. Great post, Celeste! Thanks for this really useful summary of the West Virginia public health emergency. One of the residents interviewed in a recent TV story said “maybe everyone should drink Parkersburg water,” and then she laughed. The joke is that Parkersburg water was contaminated by PFOA from the DuPont plant several decades ago. That is now presumably cleaned up, so it’s safer than the Kanawha Valley water. The PFOA story is another example of a failed regulatory system for toxic chemicals. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

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