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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and Alexandra Berzon at