West Virginia water crisis shows how little we know about the chemicals we use

It's been just about a week since hundreds of thousands of West Virginians were first told to stop using their water due to a chemical spill into the Elk River. While residents are slowly regaining access,  the facts on the exact effects of the chemical are still unknown.

A total water ban was instituted shortly after the spill was discovered Thursday, with residents told not to drink the water, use it for cooking or cleaning, or to even to touch it. Cases of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, some of which sent people to the hospital, were reported and the water smelled like licorice. Still. officials weren't able to link any of those problems directly to the spilled chemical — 4-methylcyclohexane methanol.

[ Related: West Virginia AG vows probe after chemical spill fouls water ]

Why? According to Time.com, it's because no one knows the health effects of exposure to 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) in humans. The chemical is apparently mostly used in a process called froth flotation, which cleans coal burned in smelting furnaces. There is a Material Safety Data Sheet for MCHM, as there is for pretty much every chemical substance that people handle in the workplace, but the information on it is woefully lacking.

Residents of Charleston, WV line up on January 10th, to get water. (Reuters)

The acute health effects (immediate exposure) section of the data sheet simply says: "No specific information is available in our data base regarding the toxic effects of this material for humans. However, exposure to any chemical should be kept to a minimum. Skin and eye contact may result in irritation. May be harmful if inhaled or ingested. Always follow safe industrial hygiene practices and wear proper protective equipment when handling this compound." Basically, 'we don't know, but assume it's bad (just in case).'

The chronic health effects (long-term exposure) section of the sheet goes on to say that possible cancer causing effects, any ability for the chemical to mutate our genetic code, cause malformations, or any problems with physical or mental development are completely unknown. That's not to say that it necessarily has any of those effects, but again, no studies have been done to determine if they could occur.

As Richard Denison, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, pointed out in his blog on Monday (and updated today) that CDC experts took an amount found on one data sheet, 825 milligrams per kilogram, which was once found to be the concentration needed to kill half of the rats used in a particular study. To this, they applied several "uncertainty factors" to arrive at what they figured would be a safe level of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol in the water — one part per million (in one litre of water, 1 microlitre would be safe). According to Denison's post, "No official description has been released of the methodology used to derive the 1 ppm level," and he's calling for more transparency about their process.

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According to Time.com, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol isn't the only chemical with this lack of safety information, as it's just one of 64,000 chemicals that was 'grandfathered' into the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) simply because it was in use at the time. (Asbestos was apparently afforded the same luxury.)

Testing these chemicals, which have gone without human health-effects studies now for years, can take time and apparently a lot of money, but when it comes to safeguarding people's health, this needs to be done. If the various problems people experienced over the past week are due to the chemical (it may be the most likely culprit, but honestly, there's no way to be absolutely sure without testing), who knows what kind of long-term effects this exposure might have. Hopefully, this incident will spur some action on these studies, before one of these grandfathered chemicals that's truly lethal gets spilled into someone's water supply.

(Photo courtesy: Reuters)

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