Maker of Chemical in West Virginia Spill Cited It as a Risk

Wall Street Journal
28 March 2014
By Kris Maher and Alexandra Berzon

CHARLESTON, W.Va.—The maker of a chemical that leaked into the water supply here this year warned in a 1998 document that the substance may cause blood disorders, spurring some experts to recommend people here be watched for the effect.

Chemical-Safety Documents in West Virginia Spill

A workplace safety document for Crude MCHM from 1998 lists blood disorder warnings based on animal tests. The manufacturer, Eastman Chemical, said the warnings were taken off later documents, including one from 2011, based on further testing.

Eastman Chemical Co. didn't include the warning in subsequent workplace-safety documents from 2005 and 2011 made public after the spill. The company said the initial warning came from two 1997 studies that found blood in the urine of lab rats, indicating possible damage to red blood cells. It removed the warning after later tests didn't turn up similar evidence, a spokeswoman said.

Several experts who reviewed Eastman's studies on the chemical—called Crude MCHM—said the follow-up tests didn't definitively prove there was no problem. They said the conflicting information and limited testing highlights the lack of clear standards for regulating industrial chemicals that could accidentally end up in water or soil. They also said blood in the urine is generally seen as a sign of kidney or urinary tract damage, not blood disorders.

"Is the data sufficiently scientifically rigorous to even begin to extrapolate that into humans? That's a legitimate concern," said Rahul Gupta, head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, who has reviewed the studies and called for more long-term monitoring of the population.

Eastman Chemical spokeswoman Maranda Demuth said the studies followed sound lab practices and that the company has no reason to question the conclusions. SheA spokesman for Eastman Kodak Co., which operated the lab that did the study, said he couldn't discuss test results. Eastman Chemical and Eastman Kodak have been separate since 1994.

About 10,000 gallons of Crude MCHM leaked from a storage tank on Jan. 9. The spill contaminated a water-treatment plant in the state capital for several hours before 300,000 people were told not to use their tap water. Some residents complained of skin irritation, which was among the warnings included in the later safety sheets, and gastrointestinal ailments. Dr. Gupta said he wasn't aware of any cases of blood in people's urine.

About a dozen Eastman Chemical animal studies concluded that Crude MCHM, which is used for coal processing, had low toxicity.

Federal regulations require chemical companies to lay out any known risks from their products on documents called safety sheets. The Wall Street Journal reviewed the 1998 safety sheet after a public-records request to West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection.

Manufacturers are given latitude on how they assess risk. The Eastman tests, which the company released after the spill, were designed with workplace exposure in mind, not to measure effects of widespread exposure on a human population.

Sharon Meyer, associate professor of toxicology at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and a member of the Society of Toxicology, said after reviewing the tests that follow-up studies in 1998 and 1999 were adequate to assess workplace hazards but didn't resolve questions about the observed effects. She said the tests should be repeated in the wake of the chemical spill.

Other toxicologists agreed. "I don't think they had the data to write it all off," said Douglas Neptun, a toxicology consultant and retired veterinary lab director at animal-testing companies who also reviewed the Eastman studies.

The blood warning appeared after two August 1997 studies showed that some of about 40 rats that were either fed Crude MCHM or had it applied to their skin had blood in their urine, called hematuria. Ms. Demuth, the Eastman spokeswoman, said the lab believed there was an unspecified problem with those rats. The spokesman for the lab operator said there had been a problem but declined to comment further.

Charles River Laboratories International Inc., which said it supplied the rats to the lab in 1997, said it had no record of problems with animals that year.

After studies with new rats in April 1998 and October 1999, researchers said the chemical didn't cause hematuria, though the methodology shifted. One study didn't test for blood that wasn't visible to the naked eye, as had been done in the previous study.

In a 1989 study on pure MCHM, the largest component of Crude MCHM, researchers said the chemical "may have interfered" with the production of red blood cells in rats exposed to it for 28 days. Ms. Demuth said that study was to describe possible signs of toxicity but that different testing would be needed to determine if red-blood-cell production had been interfered with.

Write to Kris Maher at and Alexandra Berzon at