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W.Va. chemical spill: Is more regulation needed for toxic substances?

Little information is known about Crude MCHM, the chemical that leaked into West Virginia's Elk River and potentially contaminated the tap water of 300,000 residents.

By Staff writer / January 10, 2014

The White House has issued a federal disaster declaration in West Virginia, where a chemical spill that may have contaminated tap water has led officials to tell at least 300,000 people not to bathe, brush their teeth, or wash their clothes.

Tyler Evert/AP Photo

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The chemical spill in Charleston, W.Va., that contaminated the Elk River and left 300,000 residents without access to water raises new questions about the regulation of chemicals used in coal processing.

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The compound in question, Crude MCHM (4-methylcyclohexane methanol), is a chemical foam used to wash coal and remove impurities that contribute to pollution during combustion. Eastman Chemical Co., the manufacturer, has identified the compound as a skin irritant that could be potentially harmful if ingested.

However, the West Virginia American Water Co., the utility that supplies the affected area, was concerned enough about the public health effects of the chemical to insist that residents refrain from using tap water to bathe in or even wash clothing.

In actuality, little is known about the human health effects of MCHM. While Eastman has produced a material safety data sheet (MSDS), as is legally required for all chemical compounds used in industry under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, much of the information appears to be incomplete.

“There are so many aspects of this chemical that there is no information about, including its general toxicity,” says Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of environmental policy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “They don’t have any information on human health effects.”

The MSDS provides the dosage required to kill rats, but those figures have not been extrapolated to suggest what a harmful dose to humans might be or what the effects might be if it is introduced into an ecosystem, Dr. Krimsky says.

The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 empowers the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate and restrict the use of chemical substances. Under TSCA, when a company creates a new chemical, the EPA has 90 days to review it and tell the company how it will be regulated before the company can use it. However, the EPA is not typically able to properly assess new compounds within that time frame. Once that 90-day window has passed, companies are free to use the substance.

Environmental advocates and legislators have been pushing for revision of the TSCA for several years in hopes of correcting this loophole, but Congress has yet to pass new legislation.

“TSCA is outdated legislation,” Krimsky says. “The way it has worked is when a chemical causes harm, that’s when the EPA will start engaging in taking actions.”

“The way TSCA was developed, it’s mostly a reporting mechanism. Industry uses its own information even if it’s no information when they are reporting to the EPA that they have this chemical,” Krimsky also says. “Depending upon EPA staffing and how much time they have, they can review these things. But if they don’t, then they’ll take a very cursory look at it, and they will let it through. That’s why we see many, many chemicals in this system that don’t have adequate toxicological information.”

As little is understood about how exposure to MCHM affects humans, even less is known about the ecological impacts. Eastman maintains that when diluted, the chemical will not have adverse effects on the aquatic environment, a spokeswoman stated in an e-mail.

However, MCHM does not readily dissolve in water, says Lance Lin, a civil and environmental engineering professor at West Virginia University in Morgantown. “This particular chemical is lighter than water. It is only slightly soluble in water, meaning it’s pretty much going to float on top of the river.”

Environmental advocates see this incident as one more tax on the Elk River levied by the coal industry.

“This spill pulls the curtain back on the coal industry's widespread and risky use of dangerous chemicals, and is an important reminder that coal-related pollution poses a serious danger to nearby communities,” the Sierra Club said in a statement Friday afternoon. “Americans, and the people of West Virginia, deserve greater accountability and transparency about coal industry practices.”

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