Study Warns of MCHM Toxicity

Charleston Gazette
12 May 2015
By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer

The main chemical released by Freedom Industries into the region’s drinking water supply in January 2014 may be more toxic than previously known, according to a new study that examined how the chemical reacts once it enters the body.

Scientists from Northeastern University in Boston found evidence of cancer-causing effects, DNA damage potential, and reproductive toxicity, according to their new paper, published online this week by the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“This adds a new finding to call more attention to this,” said April Gu, co-author of the paper and director of Northeastern’s Environmental Biotechnology Laboratory. “Maybe we need to examine this a little bit further, rather than just believing this is moderately toxic.”

The Northeastern paper was published as researchers from Purdue University prepare to release the findings of three separate studies that examine how officials in communities hit by drinking water incidents like the Freedom spill made response decisions that often lacked a sound scientific basis.

One of those studies, for example, found that plumbing system “flushing” protocols like the one used in West Virginia following the Freedom spill “would not have reduced contamination to safe levels for some homes,” according to a Purdue press release.

That study, by Purdue graduate student Karen Casteloes, examined 40 drinking-water emergencies and discovered that flushing procedures did not account for low-flow faucets or differing sized water heaters, suggesting that residents who followed officials guidelines may have still had unsafe water in their homes.Casteloes said a “significant need” exists for more analysis following drinking water chemical contamination incidents.

“This default position by some state and federal agencies and utilities is completely unacceptable and goes against protecting public health and safety,” said Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer at Purdue who led Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s WV-TAP team that investigated the Freedom spill’s impacts.

“Making decisions in the absence of data does not mean you are protecting public health,” Whelton said. “It means you do not know what the consequences of your actions will be.”

On Jan. 9, 2014, the chemical Crude MCHM, used in coal processing, was the main substance that leaked from a storage tank at Freedom’s Etowah Terminal, located just 1.5 miles up the Elk River from West Virginia American Water’s regional water treatment and distribution plant. The chemical contaminated a drinking water supply that serves 300,000 people in Charleston and surrounding communities, and a “do not use” order remained in effect for some residents for up to a week.

Crude MCHM was a mixture of various chemicals, mostly 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or 4-MCHM. The new Northeastern paper notes that other chemicals were involved in the spill, and that the lack of good toxicological data on the mixture complicates any effort to understand the public health implications of the incident. Still, they focused their study on the main chemical, 4-MCHM.Gu and her co-authors tested the chemical on yeast cells, which are commonly used for such work, and on human lung cells. They compared the toxicity of the original chemical, 4-MCHM, with the toxicity of a metabolite, or breakdown chemical, formed after exposure to the cells.

The found that, “Although 4-MCHM is considered only moderately toxic based on the previous limited acute toxicity evaluation, 4-MCHM metabolites were likely more toxic than 4-MCHM in both yeast and human cells, with different toxicity profiles and potential mechanisms.”

“Our results suggest that long-term medical monitoring should be considered for the population,” the study said.

In another of Purdue’s studies, graduate student Xiangning Huang reviewed the response practices of water utilities, states, and the federal government.

She found that approaches used by authorities varied considerably, and no guidance exists on which tests should be run in response to certain types of spills. The researchers also found that testing is conducted for chemicals that have established drinking water limits, but not for unregulated chemicals that also may pose health risks. A third Purdue study reported that 10 chemicals not listed on any material safety data sheets were spilled from the Freedom Industries tank into the Elk River.

“Research is needed to develop science-grounded tools that responders can use to rapidly respond to and recover from water supply contamination incidents,” the Purdue scientists said.

Whelton is scheduled to discuss the three Purdue studies Wednesday at the American Water Works Association Central District spring meeting in Danville, Indiana. Results are also being presented at the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors conference on June 13-16 at Yale University. They have not yet been peer-reviewed or published in scientific journals.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at, 304-348-1702