Highlight on West Virginia: Chemical Spill’s Health Effects Still Uncertain

Since January 9, 2014, when chemicals leaked out of a storage tank and into the Elk River contaminating the drinking water for most West Virginia residents, plenty of uncertainty regarding the health effects of the contamination was evident. Even two weeks after the incident, new reports indicated the presence of additional chemicals, besides the originally reported Crude MCHM, among the leaked materials. Further, the statements issued by West Virginia agencies and offices and the CDC reveal there has been extremely limited reasearch into each of these chemicals. As such, West Virginia residents continue to live in an environment where the implications of using the drinking water are unknown, for at least some parts of the population. While this controversy has fueled calls for new legislation, a bill that would impose stricter regulations on chemicals with unknown health effects failed to gain support after its introduction in the Senate last year.

The Spill and Recent Updates

Following the January 9th spill, the governor of West Virginia declared a state of emergency in nine West Virginia counties and advised citizens to “refrain from using the water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, bathing, and washing.” The state provided alternative water sources at the certain locations in each county. In the days after the spill, the state relayed information to citizens about flushing plumbing systems and as of January 14th had lifted the drinking water ban in some locations. However, on January 15, 2014, the CDC released guidance to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources stating that due to the limited availability on data indicating the effects of MCHM the state “may wish to consider an alternative drinking water source for pregnant women until the chemical is at non-detectable levels in the water distribution system.” As a result, the Office of the Governor of West Virginia, despite its earlier lift of bans in some areas, issued a statement recommending that pregnant women drink only bottled water until the desired levels are reached.

After the recommendations were released and two weeks after the spill, it was reported that another chemical was also present in the leaked material. The company that owned the storage tank responsible for the leak, Freedom Industries, refused to release the exact composition of that material, claiming it was proprietary. The CDC release indicated it was a mixture of polyglycol ethers (PPH). Again, the CDC admitted that knowledge of the toxicity of PPH was limited.

Crude MCHM and PPH

Crude MCHM is composed of seven different chemicals including 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (4-MCHM), which makes up 68 to 86 percent of the Crude MCHM according to the material safety data sheet. The data sheet also reveals the considerable uncertainty as to the consequences of exposure to MCHM as it states that there is “no data available” as to many of its effects. In fact, a recent Washington Post article pointed out the data sheet used the phrase “no data available” 152 times.

Both the CDC’s release and the West Virginia government’s comments on the issue of the consumption of the water by pregnant woman were fraught with unknowns. The CDC states that few studies on the effects of Crude MCHM have been conducted and most of the existing studies were done on animals, while the answers to Frequently Asked Questions released by the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health provide answers that are coupled with the caveat that there are no known studies to support that negative effects exist. The CDC also announced, after it was communicated that PPH was a part of the  leaked materials into the Elk River, that studies on PPH were also quite limited.  

Proposed Legislation

The Governor of West Virginia, Earl Ray Tomblin, announced his intention to draft new legislation to guard against this kind of contamination by implementing above ground storage regulations. Earlier last year, a Senate bill was introduced that would require safety evaluations on all chemicals in commerce. The proposed bill, which was introduced as the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013 and has not been voted on since its inception in May of 2013, was described as a means to test for hazards to children and pregnant women. The bill was also said to provide specific guidelines to the chemical industry of health effects. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) noted, the bill “would give companies such as Eastman Chemical Company… the long overdue clarity in the law they need to better innovate and create jobs in the 21st century economy.” Eastman Chemical is the manufacturer of Crude MCHM.