CDC Launches Page on MCHM After West Virginia Chemical Spill

Federal health regulators have launched a new webpage that provides details about the potential health risks associated with exposure to the chemical that contaminated the drinking water of more than 300,000 West Virginian residents earlier this month.  

Thousands of gallons of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) were released into the Elk River earlier this month, after a Freedom Industries storage tank ruptured.

Although a ban on use of the public water supply has been lifted, many area residents remain concerned about the potential health effects of MCHM, which is a chemical used to clean coal and prepare it for use. In response to the concerns, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has put up a MCHM webpage to explain what it knows about the chemical’s risks and health effects.

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The Freedom Industries chemical leak occurred just upstream from a water intake for West Virginia American Water Company (WVAW) on January 9. The chemical emitted a strong odor similar to licorice, and caused residents to suffer eye and skin irritation and nausea in Charleston and the surrounding counties, resulting in a water ban for more than 300,000 residents and businesses.

Little is known about the long-term health effects of MCHM, and the CDC inadvertently caused more confusion and concern after it first said that the water would be safe to drink once levels reached one part per million. That state was later changed to indicate that pregnant women should continue to avoid exposure to the contaminated water, even at those allegedly “safe” levels. In addition, at least 100 people reported to emergency rooms throughout the area complaining of MCHM side effects after being told they could drink the water.

The CDC says that MCHM is a type of organic alcohol that is not combustible. It’s obvious odor makes its presence fairly easy to detect. In fact, residents noticing the smell were the first indication that the water had been contaminated.

While the CDC states that there should be no MCHM in drinking water at all, it did lay out criteria for safe levels of exposure as 1 ppm (part per million). However, the CDC states that “out of an abundance of caution” pregnant women may want to consider a different drinking water source until the levels of MCHM drop low enough to be non-detectable.

Chemical Spill Lawsuits Drive Freedom Industries Under

Both Freedom Industries and WVAW face a growing number of lawsuits over the chemical spill by residents and businesses who say it was negligent to let the chemical reach the water supply. However, Freedom Industries has now filed for bankruptcy protection in the wake of the accident.

The company anticipates that clean up costs and liability will break it, and has asked for a loan of up to $5 million to start the clean up and remediation. Freedom Industries President Gary Southern, told a federal judge on January 21 that the chemical spill has caused chaos in the area bordering on “mass hysteria.”

WVAW has asked U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Pearson to reject Freedom Industries plans until more is known about the financial state of the company.

Photo Courtesy of Steve A Johnson via Flickr CC 2.0

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