On January 9, 2014, 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM leaked into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia. State and federal agencies issued a state of emergency and ordered 300,000 West Virginia residents not to drink or use tap water for any purpose other than flushing toilets. Reviewing this situation can help us understand how to be prepared. I wrote the following just a few weeks after the spill.
I have received a number of questions regarding the recent chemical spill in West Virginia. I would like to go over some of the facts about the spill and talk about what you can do to protect your family from this situation and future chemical spills. (Yes, it will happen again.)
MCHM is a foaming agent used in the coal preparation process. Unfortunately, there is simply not a lot of information available about this chemical. The fact is, no one knows what the health effects of this chemical are! Richard Denison, Ph.D., a Senior Scientist at the Environmental Health Fund says this, “How, you might well ask, is this possible? How can a chemical in active production and use – and now being released into the environment and exposing people – be on the market without any publicly released hazard data or evidence of its safety?”
He goes on to explain that, “The sad truth is this chemical 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.”
Without this data, all we can do is look at the chemical structure and chemical characteristics and draw some conclusions.
FIRST OF ALL, MCHM is an organic chemical. This means that the chemical is a carbon-based molecule. Unfortunately, organic chemicals can be very potent. The reason for this is quite simple; all life forms are also based on a carbon-based molecule, and carbon molecules can bind with other carbon molecules. So while many inorganic compounds (such as metals and minerals) can be dangerous in parts per million (ppm), carbon-based molecules can be dangerous in parts per billion (ppb) or even smaller. Dioxin, for example, is dangerous in parts per quintillion!
SECOND, without sufficient toxicity data, I believe it is safe to assume a maximum safety level of 5 parts per billion for organic compounds. Again, this is speculation. It could be much more dangerous than this, or it might be less potent.
THIRD, it seems that there have been some corrections in the data after it has been released. For example, see how this quote from the Environmental Defense Fund has been modified, “How can a chemical in active production and use – and now being released into the environment and exposing people – be on the market without any [ADDED 1/12/14: publicly available] hazard data or evidence of its safety?
This change makes it apparent that there is safety data on this chemical, but that it is not publicly available. Why would it not be publicly available? This makes me think that it may be quite scary.
The obvious question is, “How can we protect ourselves from this chemical?”
My answer to this question will be different than the government’s answer. From my experience, the government ALWAYS wants to downplay the danger. Keeping people calm is their top concern, followed closely by protecting the local economy. I approach it from a different perspective. I always ask myself, what advice would give to a loved one or a close friend?
So here is the advice I would give to a close friend…
- Do NOT consume or come in contact with this water for quite a while, even if the government tells you that it is safe. I would do his for at least a month after the government tells you that it’s OK to use.
- I would advise against washing in it, cooking with it, brushing your teeth or even washing your clothes or your dishes. Remember that fountain drinks, coffee, soups and other food would be made with this water, so also avoid these.
- Only drink water and other drinks that are produced on a different source of water (from out of State). If you don’t absolutely know the source of the water, don’t consume it.
- You can drink bottled water or other water that you have stored away. If you do not have bottled water, choose a safe water supply that does not come from the Elk River, such as a rainwater cistern or a well.
- Remember that food is also made with water, so don’t cook with water and don’t eat out. For example, pizza dough, bread, soup, pasta, and even vegetables are cooked with water and could absorb these chemicals.
- Certainly, do NOT make baby formula or wash your baby or children in this water. Children are always more susceptible to chemicals than adults.
- Do not give the water to your pets.
- Please note that you should NOT boil the water or chemically sterilize the water with chlorine. Boiling and chlorination are only effective against biological contamination, and would actually concentrate these chemicals in the water.
- While we have not tested emergency water distillers against MCHM, the boiling point of the chemical is considerably higher than water (396°F), while the vapor pressure of the chemical is low, which means that it won’t easily be released as a vapor. In other words, the chemical would stay behind in the boiling pot and would not travel with the steam and condense back into the distilled water. Based on this information, we are confident that distillation will remove the chemical.
- If you are not able to do any of these things, you may decide that it’s a good time to take a short trip or visit relatives (as long as they don’t get their water from the Elk River).
How long do I think you should take extra precautions? Again it’s hard to say. I would give it a month or two so that people have time to really investigate it and so you can separate truth from propaganda.
After the spill, more than 150 residents sought treatment at hospitals and 700 residents called the poison control center complaining of nausea and rashes. Restaurants were forced to shut down for several days. Two years later, a tentative settlement for up to $151 million in individual and business damages was reached in a class-action suit against West Virginia American Water Co. and Eastman Chemical Co.
In 2017, three years after the event, another settlement was reached between the private water utility and the state Public Service Commission and Consumer Advocate. The deal stipulates that West Virginia American Water must follow new requirements for source water protection, water quality monitoring, emergency preparedness, and communications with the public.