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Environment

Federal study of MCHM concludes

Chemical, which spilled into a West Virginia river in January 2014, likely didn’t harm people

by Jessica Morrison
July 11, 2016

Credit: AP
A 2014 picture of storage tanks in Charleston, W.Va., one of which leaked into the Elk River.

A just-released federal study of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) concluded that exposure to the chemical after it spilled into the Elk River in Charleston, W. Va., in January 2014 is “not likely to be associated with any adverse health effects.”

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4-methylcyclohexanemethanol
4-methylcyclohexanemethanol

MCHM was the largest component of a mixture of chemicals that leaked from a corroded commercial storage tank upstream of the water supply for some 300,000 people. At the time of the spill, little was known about MCHM, an alicyclic alcohol used to process coal.

City officials issued a ban on the use of tap water for drinking and washing that lasted more than a week for some of the affected residents. Some reported skin irritation and stomach upset from exposure to contaminated water.

Lack of information about MCHM and other components of the spilled liquid led the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention to request further study from the National Toxicology Program (NTP), a federal program that investigates chemicals of concern to public health.

“Alicyclic alcohols and other chemicals of this sort are likely to have similar toxicological properties,” says Scott S. Auerbach, a molecular toxicologist who worked on the study. Still, the toxicology of many chemicals in the class, including MCHM, was unknown prior to the year-long study, he says.

NTP identified MCHM as a developmental toxicant at concentrations “considerably higher” than the drinking water limit set by CDC after the spill. In its final report, NTP confirmed that the limit instituted by CDC was adequate and that exposure at or below that level is not likely to pose health effects.

A separate analysis by the West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources found no significant change in birth weight for babies born before and after the spill.

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Comments
Anzellott (July 12, 2016 2:44 PM)
I would like to know the composition of the whole mixture spilled. maybe MCHM is not harmful but what about the other components?
G. Paul Richter, Ph.D. (July 18, 2016 10:21 AM)
I hadwondered about that from the outset, because what was spilled was crude MCHM, which has a number of other components. So I searched the internet for MSDS for crude MCHM. MSDS #: EA004957
PRODUCT NAME: CRUDE MCHM
PRODUCT IDENTIFICATION NUMBER(S): SPC 04708
MANUFACTURER/SUPPLIER: EASTMAN CHEMICAL COMPANY, KINGSPORT, TENNESSEE 37662
MSDS PREPARED BY: EASTMAN PRODUCT SAFETY AND STEWARDSHIP, EASTMAN CHEMICAL
COMPANY, KINGSPORT, TN 37662. This MSDS indicates 4 other components in addition to water and MCHM and their ranges of compositions: 2. COMPOSITION/INFORMATION ON INGREDIENTS
WEIGHT % − COMPONENT − (CAS REGISTRY NUMBER)
68−89 4−METHYLCYCLOHEXANEMETHANOL (034885−03−5)
4−22 4−(METHOXYMETHYL)CYCLOHEXANEMETHANOL (098955−27−2) (IMPURITY)
4−8 WATER (007732−18−5)
0−5 METHYL 4−METHYLCYCLOHEXANECARBOXYLATE (051181−40−9)
0−1 DIMETHYL 1,4−CYCLOHEXANEDICARBOXYLATE (000094−60−0)
0−1 METHANOL (000067−56−1)

Interestingly the following statement appears on p.4: THIS ENVIRONMENTAL EFFECTS SUMMARY IS WRITTEN TO ASSIST IN ADDRESSING EMERGENCIES CREATED BY AN ACCIDENTAL SPILL WHICH MIGHT OCCUR DURING THE SHIPMENT OF THIS MATERIAL, AND, IN GENERAL, IT IS NOT MEANT TO ADDRESS DISCHARGES TO SANITARY SEWERS OR PUBLICLY OWNED TREATMENT WORKS.

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