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Toxicity Unknown

Pollution: Lack of hazard data hampers response to chemical spill in West Virginia

by Jeff Johnson , Cheryl Hogue
January 17, 2014 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 92, ISSUE 3

A lack of toxicity data stymied officials in Charleston, W.Va., this week as they rushed to clean up the city’s contaminated drinking water system.

They ordered more than 300,000 people not to drink or wash in tap water for nearly a week after a leaking chemical storage tank poured thousands of gallons of a coal-processing liquid into the Elk River. They advised pregnant women to drink bottled water until the chemical is no longer detectable in the water system.

The leaking tank is about 1 mile upstream from the intake pipe for Charleston’s water supply system, which is the state’s largest. Freedom Industries, a chemical supplier and blender, owns the tank.

Credit: AP


Credit: AP


Freedom Industries’ storage tanks (top) are adjacent to the Elk River. Tank number 396 (bottom) is the one that leaked the coal-processing chemical, tainting the Charleston, W.Va., water supply.

Polluting the water system was crude 4-methylcyclo­hexanemethanol (MCHM), which is used to clean coal for electricity-generating plants. Little is known about the hazards of the substance, a situation that left officials scrambling for answers as they faced a frightened and angry public.

“That was a new chemical for us. We never encountered it in any of our previous investigations,” says Daniel M. Horowitz, managing director of the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board. CSB began probing the incident at the urging of Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) soon after the leak was discovered on Jan. 10.

“There is not a great deal known about MCHM’s toxicity, and that is one of the reasons this accident has been difficult,” Horowitz says. “You never want to be in the position of performing a toxicity experiment like this on your own drinking water supply.”

A 2011 material safety data sheet from Eastman Chemical, the maker of MCHM, warns that the substance is “harmful if swallowed” and “causes skin and eye irritation.” But it offers little more information, with more than two dozen entries marked “no data available.” These include inhalation effects, carcinogenicity, reproductive toxicity, biodegradability, and physical-chemical properties including evaporation rate.

The lack of toxicity data on MCHM, Horowitz says, demonstrates “a very profound point: There are literally tens of thousands of chemicals that are out there for which we don’t have complete hazard information.”

“We really need these chemical data to be available at the time something happens so that intelligent decisions can be made,” agrees Richard Denison, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, an activist group.

But the 37-year-old federal law governing chemical production, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), doesn’t require chemical makers to generate this information. Companies are not mandated to submit hazard information they have to the Environmental Protection Agency, except when data suggest the possibility of substantial risk. Instead, TSCA sets up complex legal requirements that EPA must meet before the agency can require manufacturers to provide toxicity data for a chemical in commerce.

The MCHM incident marks the third major chemical industry accident near the West Virginia capital that CSB has investigated in the past six years, Horowitz says. In 2010, a worker died at the DuPont chemical manufacturing plant in Belle, W.Va., east of Charleston, when three accidents, one involving phosgene, occurred within 33 hours. In 2008, two workers were killed by a blast at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, W.Va., west of the capital, and some 40,000 nearby residents were ordered to shelter in place.


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John Farmer (January 17, 2014 12:26 PM)
Accidents happen. Which genius decided to put the chemical facility just upstream of the water supply intake? Pwned
Paul E. Eckler (January 20, 2014 2:00 PM)
As an experienced industrial chemist, let me offer a few comments on methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM).

1. MCHM is insoluble in water and lighter than water. Hence, it should be very much like diesel fuel. It should form an oil slick on the surface of water. In the human body, it should be oxidized to the corresponding acid and excreted through the kidneys. That should mean low toxicity. Hence it is expected to be more a nuisance than toxic. No we do not want it in food or water, but toxic risk is low. Some may call for more testing, but results are expected to be mundane.

2. Low solubility should make MCHM easy to remove from water. Those carbon filters sold for water treatment (to remove chloroform and related haloforms) should also remove MCHM, although capacity may be limited.

3. MCHM in water is easily detected by odor, but high boiling point means it can be detected by evaporation. Heat a cup of water to dryness in a Pyrex dish in an oven at about 250F. MCHM will leave an oily residue, typically up to 1/8 tsp. (You will also see hard water residues but watch for oil.)

4. Storage tanks for toxics and combustibles are usually surrounded by secondary containment, often concrete pits. In a fire, the pit is intended to prevent burning liquid from entering sewers, which can spread the fire quickly. To prevent accumulation of rainwater, pits often drain into storm sewers. That means leaking tanks must be detected by personnel and action taken to keep contents from entering sewers. Facilities with chemical storage usually have security on site full time to protect from theft and mischief, but are they trained to respond to a leak? Will a leak be handled immediately or will it wait for the day shift to be reported? Ghost plants, ie those with a minimal skeleton staff, are especially a concern for security of stored materials. [One suspects this is the scenario at Freedom Chemicals. A leaking tank went undetected or unreported until significant amounts had gone into a storm sewer with an outfall to the river.]

5. Well designed storage tanks can be serviceable for decades or more. But much depends on their history and their use. Corrosion is often the source of leaks. Under unfavorable circumstances, tanks can fail rapidly. Frequent inspection is a must, but there is no substitute for adequate secondary containment.

6. Changes in industry practices may be in order to reduce spill incidents. Some obvious ideas:
1.) Require training to deal with leaks promptly and that trained people be on site at all times.
2.) Seal drains on secondary containment to require manpower on site for drainage.
3.) Require that containment drains flow into a lagoon where water can be tested and treated prior to discharge.
4.) Cover secondary containment to keep rainwater out so drains can be sealed.

7. At least two other leak incidents requiring water restrictions have happened on the Ohio River in recent years. Failure of the Ashland Oil storage tank was a major one. There was also release of an industrial solvent. Better regulation of storage tanks is needed.

Paul E. Eckler
JAYANT RAMAN (January 20, 2014 10:10 PM)
Dear Paul
Thanks for providing the Chemical proprties & its Toxicological effects of MCHM provided & also Thanks to Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board officials immediate action which prevented the occurance of a disaster to happen inspite of the non-availability on the Chem info of MCHM.
Laws need to be inplace to make Mfg units (near Waters bodies/ecological fragile environments provide) latest duly approved MSDS to concerned authorities who are the 1st to offer Rescuing efforts in case of a worst case scenario. They need to be equipped with prior info & resources for rescue.
Joe M. (January 21, 2014 12:12 PM)
We can supply air & water filters that will effectlively remove the contaminant so people will not have as much exposure/risk from the spill.
Robert Buntrock (January 22, 2014 3:37 PM)
Part of the problem with obtaining data on MCHM is nomenclature. It's not in Merck Index, Sax's, or RTECS (at least not in my ancient--1976--copy). The Wikipedia article does have a good description, with usual excellent data box, and is current (1/21/14) with references to the WV spill. A referenced article from the Charleston Gazette exemplifies the nomenclature problem since several looked for methylcyclohexane and no further. Some renditions also named it methylcyclohexane methanol where I'm sure that the last word raised a lot of eyebrows The need for CAS Registry Numbers is well illustrated.

An even better source is PubChem (the compound number is cited in the Wikipedia article) including more data, synonyms, and links to the meager tox data. One is to the HSDB reference which lists Human Health Effects (skin and eye irritant with links to the Eastman tox studies) and Possible Routes of Human Exposure.
David Sinclair (January 22, 2014 7:19 PM)
A simple Google query got me the basic tox information a few days ago. Eastman Chemical also posted their toxicity information on their website on 1/10, the day of the spill.

Its slightly toxic, median lethal dose was found to be about 1g/Kg (oral) in rats, and its non-mutagenic.

I agree with Bob that the trivial name can lead you easily astray, but it seems to me the reporter didn't understand the MSDS and wasn't interested finding the basic information that Eastman had already posted.
Richard Denison (January 30, 2014 2:50 PM)
You should get your facts straight. The spill was first discovered on January 9, not 10. Eastman did not make its studies public on its webiste or otherwise until January 16, a full week after the spill. That was after days of officials, reporters and others requesting the studies be provided, while Eastman was claiming they were proprietary. And what Eastman finally made available are summaries, not the full studies. It's 2011 MSDS was incomplete and inaccurate, as it omits any reference to most of these studies.

Using a median lethal dose to claim that MCHM is only "slighlty toxic" is a major leap.

For more detail, see
Michael D. Shesterkin (January 24, 2014 11:27 AM)
Paul Eckler's measured commentary about the nature of the material, and more specifically, the need to properly manage the risks associated with its use and storage are spot-on; however, TSCA reform should be listed in his recommendations for action. Notwithstanding his excellent points about the low probability of human toxicity, we simply "do not know" about potentially deleterious effects this material may have. For the common good, all of us who work in this industry should sound a clarion call for TSCA reform every chance we get.
Peter Mackay (January 28, 2014 6:23 PM)
What is most alarming to me is that the company concerned, on whose premises this chemical was kept and which was responsible for the spill, is either ignorant of or feigning ignorance of the substance's properties.
We saw the same thing at the ammonium nitrate explosion in West, TX last year.
Now that Freedom Industries has sought bankruptcy protection, it seems set to avoid its responsibilities altogether. Senior executives must be held personally responsible.

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