Responding to the Freedom Industries chemical spill
We are aware of two independent companies that are doing water testing:
Official water testing results are available here.
Appalachian Water Watch is an independent non-profit that is trying to document the extent of the problems caused by the spill. If you can still smell MCHM in your home, record your findings at their site or call 1-855-7WATERS to have them help you upload your information to their website.
The authorities’ rush to assure everyone that they know what they’re talking about has clearly backfired.
The state government initially announced a 1 part-per-million (ppm) “standard”, below which crude MCHM in drinking water was deemed safe. The Centers for Disease Control did not initially release its methodology for calculating this standard, but they stated that the number was based on a study of the lethal dose of MCHM for rats and another animal study to determine the “no observable adverse effects level.” However, according to the toxicity studies released by MCHM’s manufacturer, Eastman Chemical, it looks like the study of the “no observable adverse effects level” was actually a study of pure MCHM, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, not crude MCHM. Crude MCHM, the chemical that spilled into the Elk River, is a mixture of pure MCHM and five other organic chemicals, 4-(methoxymethyl)cyclohexanemethanol, methyl 4-methylcyclohexanecarboxylate, dimethyl 1,4-cyclohexanedicarboxylate, methanol and 1,4-cyclohexanedimethanol. The CDC’s website now has more details about the 1ppm “standard”, in which they say, “A level of 1ppm or below is not likely to be associated with any adverse health effects.”
The fact that there are many of these complex carbon/hydrogen based molecules in WV American’s water is important for determining water safety, because the different chemical structures of these molecules can produce very different health effects.
In a letter to WV officials on January 15, the CDC suggested that “[d]ue to limited availability of data, and out of an abundance of caution, you may wish to consider an alternative drinking water source for pregnant women until the chemical is at non-detectable levels in the water distribution system.”
There is very little information available about MCHM because it is not regulated. MCHM has been around for more than forty years and we don’t have even basic information about the health impacts of exposure to this chemical. MCHM is not regulated under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act because it was introduced prior to 1976 when the law was enacted.
Jennifer Sass, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, has attempted to extrapolate a real health advisory standard for the only chemical in crude MCHM that has any toxicology data at all. Her conclusion is that the 1 ppm standard advocated by WV American Water and Gov. Tomblin is actually .025 ppm, about 1/40 of the concentration being pushed in WV. This figure is still very much a guess, but Dr. Sass has at least attempted to use standard scientific methods for her calculations, instead of the shaky, back-of-the-envelope calculations used by the CDC’s 1 ppm calculation. And remember that all of these estimates are only for one of the chemicals in crude MCHM and PPH, and includes none of the chemicals into which these compounds will break down into over the coming weeks and months. Here is a link to Dr. Sass’s explanation.
On January 21, 2014, Ken Ward reported in the Charleston Gazette that a new chemical, PPH, was also mixed into the mixture of Crude MCHM that leaked from the Freedom Industries site. PPH is made up of polyglycol ethers. Like the chemicals in Crude MCHM, little is known about the harmfulness of PPH to humans.
It appears that PPH is itself a mixture of chemicals, but the manufacturer of PPH has not allowed these chemicals to be listed on PPH’s Material Safety Data Sheet because the information is “proprietary.”
Here is an excellent summary from the February 9 Charleston Gazette of how the federal CDC came up with the 1 ppm “screening standard” for WV American Water’s product, including analysis by critics who claimed a real safety standard would have been much lower.