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West Virginia Chemical Spill – Is the water safe to drink?

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West Virginia Chemical Spill – Is the water safe to drink?

On Thursday January 9th, 2014 a chemical spill occurred at the Kanawha River Valley, near Charleston, West Virginia. A spill of more than 5,000 gallons of chemicals rendered the waters unsafe for human consumption from the Elk River. Nearly 300,000 people were asked not to use water from their faucets for drinking, cooking or even bathing. This was the 3rd chemical spill accident to occur on the river over the last 5 years. According to the Center for Disease Control, the chemical that spilled into the Elk River was 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM). West Virginia’s Governor’s office issued a public notice advising against the use of tap water due to uncertainty regarding the levels of chemical in the water supply. The Department of Health and Human Resources in West Virginia also requested the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to review sampling data and screen drinking water for MCHM levels. Later in the month, the manufacturer of the spilt chemical; Freedom Industries, notified authorities of an additional material that formed part of the spilled chemical. The material, identified as an initial mixture was composed of dipropulene glycol phenylether (DiPPH) and propylene glycol phenyl ether (PPH). This chemical got into the water system along with MCHM but represented a comparatively smaller percentage, about 7% in terms of weight of the total chemical amount in the tank. What is 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM)?

4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) is a colorless, clear liquid that has a smell similar to licorice. This chemical is used in the coal industry to separate usable coal from debris, rocks and cold dust. When people get exposed to this chemical, they develop symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, headaches, itching, reddened skin and rashes. Following the January 9th Elk River chemical spill, more than 1900 calls were made to the West Virginia Poison Center by patients who reported exposure to the MCHM chemical. Most patients reported symptoms associated with reddened skin and mild rashes due to dermal exposure as well as gastric intestinal distress such as vomiting, diarrhea and nausea as a result of ingesting the contaminated water. However, the symptoms reported appeared to be self-limiting and mild. There was also a possibility that the symptoms reported may have resulted from MCHM exposure which included symptoms of clinical illnesses such as the flu, common cold, or some viral infections. Laboratory tests conducted at the Emergency Department did not show signs of people acquiring new liver or kidney infections.

Location of the MCHM Storage Facility Crude methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) and a significantly lesser, though actual amount is unknown of propylene glycol phenyl ether (PPH) found its way into the Elk River from a ruptured storage tank on January, 9th 2014. The storage tank belongs to Freedom Industries and sits about one mile upstream from the area's drinking water supply plant that supplies 9 counties. Belonging to the West Virginia American Water (WVAW), the water supply plant lies at the heart of the state's most populated region.

Safety of Water after the Chemical Spill

West Virginia’s Governor, Earl Ray Tomblim immediately issued a strict notice informing residents not to use tap water. In some areas, this prohibition so to speak lasted 10 days. On 13th January, 2014, four days after the spill, the Governor along with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention started lifting the ban in phases. They claimed that they had established guidelines on allowable MCHM levels in water which had been met. However, 2 days after the ban was lifted, Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a statement advising pregnant women not to ingest the tap water. In a bid to calm the people, CDC said that it did not expect any adverse health effects on the rest of the population. Two months after the chemical spill, it was still not clear whether the water was safe for human consumption or not. Jeff McIntyre, President of the Utility, West Virginia American Water said, “I can’t tell you that the water is unsafe, but I also can’t tell you that the water is safe.”


MCHM Usage in the Coal Industry

A consultant at a major mining industry firm told National Geographic that 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is used in about 25 percent of coal processing plants in West Virginia.

The consultant, a former miner who insisted on anonymity because of orders from his employer, said the chemical is used in a process called froth flotation, which separates sand-sized particles of coal from the surrounding rock, in a tank of water or other solutions.

Not every coal preparation plant uses this chemical, because it is primarily used to produce coal for metallurgical purposes, called coking coal, the consultant said. The chemical is rarely used to produce coal that is burned to create electricity, called steam coal, which represents the vast majority of coal produced. “Thirty years ago I used diesel fuel in froth flotation, but you can’t use that anymore because of restrictions on air emissions,” the consultant said.

The chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol replaced diesel.

Public Perception after the Chemical Spill

Disasters are happening more regularly and as a resident, you will need to determine what to believe when faced by situations similar to the West Virginia chemical spill. We made effort to establish public perceptions on water safety following the chemical spill, explore their awareness of health risks caused by MCHM and whether those affected believed what the Government and the corporations involved were telling them. When we asked a resident of the affected area whether local reports of people vomiting could be linked to the contaminated water, he said he was not able to link anyone’s illness to the chemical spill. He went ahead to confirm that there was a smell in the water that caused stress but he couldn’t link the two because he wasn’t qualified. Generally, the people in the affected area did not fully trust official assurances. One of the residents, Archie, said he did not know whether the water was safe to use or it would affect them weeks, five or ten years later.

Perception of the State and Local Water Company

We also talked to people working for the state as well as those working in the local water company who thought that the contamination of the water supply system was not a big situation. According to Thomas Aluise, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is not toxic but is harmful if swallowed. Laura Jordan of the West Virginia American Water told the media that the do-not-drink advisory was issued as a precaution. According to Laura, the safety sheet indicated there could be some skin or eye irritation if you come in contact, or possibly harmful if swallowed, but that’s at full strength of the chemical. “The chemical was diluted in the river,” she said.

Please see below a YouTube video with pictures and locals telling their side of the story.

How the water supply got contaminated

 

According to Jeff McIntyre, President of the Utility, West Virginia American Water, and the water treatment plant was designed to handle such events. He further explained that no water plant is designed to specifically treat every possible chemical but treatment plants are generally designed to treat things that are naturally in the water stream.

McIntyre added that the treatment plant has a premium treatment process where a filter of activated carbon sits ready in case of a potentially dangerous discharge. However, in the case of the Elk River chemical spill, the carbon got saturated with chemical material and therefore the treatment process couldn’t handle the chemical quantity. In other words, the amount of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol chemical in the water was so high to an extent that much of it flowed past the carbon filter and into the water supply.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/01/140116-chemical-valley-west-virginia-chemical-spill-coal/

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