The Dangers of the Chemical Spilled in West Virginia’s Elk River Are Widely Unknown

dangers-of-elk-river-chemical-spillsLittle is known about the effects of the coal cleaning chemical that was involved in the Elk River spill in West Virginia last week—4-methyl-cyclohexane-methanol (MCHM). The spill led to a nine-county water ban impacting some 300,000 people, and to the governor declaring a state of emergency.

Even experts do not understand the effects of MCHM and at what levels in water, and elsewhere, the chemical becomes dangerous. According to a recent National Public Radio (NPR) report, chemists and toxicologists, for the most part, have never heard of MCHM. The West Virginia water company had not heard of the chemical and neither did emergency responders called to the scene.

MCHM is used as a “froth floatation,” the American Association of Poison Control Center indicates. The chemical may be inhaled and ingested, and may make contact with the skin and eyes, according to a recent CNN report. Longer term effects and at what levels MCHM becomes dangerous remains unknown. Some of the known short-term side effects may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhea
  • Red or irritated skin, eye irritation, irritation of the nose, throat
  • Itching
  • Rash
  • Drowsiness
  • Narcosis (unconsciousness) in animals


State officials say they spoke to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concerning the chemical and when they could lift the water ban. The CDC had no standard in place for what level of MCHM is safe in water for drinking. The agency worked to create a standard, relying on just one study that determined the lethal MCHM dose for rats, according to NPR.

“And from that you would decrease the proposed level down further and further, taking into account all the uncertainties,” says Vikas Kapil, chief medical officer at the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health. The CDC also created a safety factor into the limits it set because health officials could not determine if humans are more vulnerable than rats to MCHM, The CDC also added safety measures for specific populations, such as children and the elderly, the NPR indicated.

“There are unknowns,” acknowledged Karen Bowling, West Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources. “So we have to rely on what’s already known about [it] and what’s [been] tested about this particular chemical,” she added, NPR reported.

West Virginia officials also sought help from safety information companies. Those companies must provide information on the chemicals they maintain; however, the material data sheets they completed contained no meaningful information on MCHM. “The entries were largely ‘data not available’ for this particular compound,” Sharon Meyer, a toxicologist from the University of Louisiana, Monroe, told NPR.

“There are 85,000 chemicals in commerce right now in the United States, and we cannot possibly test all the chemicals for all their different properties,” Rolf Halden, an engineering professor at Arizona State University who researches the way in which chemicals impact people and the environment said, according to NPR.

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