Health Impacts of the West Virginia Chemical Spill

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MCHM is used in washing coal to separate the burnable fossil fuels from the nonburnable parts. Image by the USGS

MCHM is used in washing coal to separate the burnable fossil fuels from the nonburnable parts. Image by the USGS

On January 9, 2014, complaints that the tap water in West Virginia smelled of licorice had some residents concerned enough to report it to the West Virginia American Water.

Turns out this strange odor was from a chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol that had leaked from a 40,000 gallon tank at Freedom Industries that sits along side of Elk River.

Residents of Charleston, West Virginia still have no clean tap water. Schools, restaurants, and businesses, except for state offices will be closed.

So what is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol and how hazardous is it to your health?

What is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol?

Freedom Industries produces specialty chemicals such as, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, that are used in mining, steel, and cement industries. The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM is used to wash the coal to separate the burnable fossil fuels from the waste material. According to Dr. Clara Piccirillo, MCHM is classified as an alcohol and unfortunately there isn’t a lot of data on the safety of this chemical.

West Virginia Chemical Spill Health Effects

Officials are estimating that 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol  leaked into the Elk River – however, they don’t know how much of that entered the water supply, as some of the chemical was contained before it flowed into the Elk River. According to Reuters, 73 people have gone to the emergency room, and five people have been admitted to the hospital for observation. These people experienced symptoms including rashes and red skin, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

According to the safety data sheet, “No specific information is available in our data base regarding the toxic effects of this material for humans. However,exposure to any chemical should be kept to a minimum. Skin and eye contact may result in irritation. May be harmful if inhaled or ingested. Always follow safe industrial hygiene practices and wear proper protective equipment when handling this compound.

Although, the chemical isn’t highly lethal, experts haven’t quantified safe levels of this chemical, according to West Virginia American Water president, Jeff McIntyre.

Restoring Clean Water

According to Fox News, it could take days before the residents of Charleston have clean tap water again. In a news conference this past Saturday, West Virginia American Water president, Jeff McIntyre said that water samples must consistently show that the amount of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is at or well below the one parts per million level that is recommended by federal agencies. Officials told Fox News that the amount of chemical in the water is going down, but they won’t start flushing the water lines until all tests were under the one part per million for 24 hours.

West Virginia Water Emergency: Be Prepared

In the meantime, 800,000 liters of water should have shipped over this past weekend to Charleston and surrounding areas to assist the more than 300,000 people without clean tap water. Walmart is selling their brand of water at cost to everyone in the area for as long as the emergency continues. Local stores have donated water to fire departments, the Red Cross, and police departments so that they can deliver the water to those who are not able to leave their homes.

This is a good reminder to the rest of us: A supply of clean fresh water is an essential component to your home’s emergency kit.

Editor’s Note: A previous edition of this article included two truncated subheadings missing the word ‘West’ and a map of ‘Elk Creek, West Virginia.’ We have restored the subheadings to reflect the correct location of the spill (West Virginia) and have removed the image of Elk Creek to avoid confusion. 

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