Study Warns of MCHM Toxicity
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
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
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1702