Failed TSCA collides with the real world in West Virginia chemical spill this week

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.  Jennifer McPartland, Ph.D., is a Health Scientist.

[CORRECTION ADDED BELOW 1/12/14]

If the protracted debate over reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) sometimes seems esoteric or abstract, the epic failure of this law could not be better illustrated than by what’s unfolding in Charleston, WV this week.

There, a major spill into the Elk River of an obscure chemical used to wash coal has disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of residents of the state for what is likely to be days if not weeks or longer.  The storage tank from which the chemical has leaked lies upstream from the intake for one of the city’s drinking water treatment plants.  Even before the leak had been detected or reported, the chemical was sucked into the plant and distributed through thousands of miles of pipe to homes and businesses.  Residents have been told not to drink, bathe or otherwise come into contact with the water – although some exposure clearly did occur before the warnings were issued.  Massive amounts of water are being trucked into the area.  President Obama declared the situation a national emergency.

What is particularly maddening and outrageous is that no one – not local or state officials, not the company that owns the storage tank, not the federal government – can say anything even close to definitive about what risk the chemical poses to people, even in the short-term, let alone over time.  And that’s where the failures of TSCA come into sharp focus. 

The chemical in question is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM; its unique identifying “CAS number” is 34885-03-5.  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data indicate it’s made by one company in the U.S.:  Eastman Chemical Company (search here using the CAS number).  The amount of the chemical produced and used in the U.S., however, is not publicly reported because Eastman declared that information to be confidential.

A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that summarizes available information on the chemical is available.  Have a look at what is says about the hazards of the chemical:

MCHM MSDS excerptAn older MSDS from Eastman for “crude MCHM” (which includes several other compounds) also contains no health data, although it provides similar warnings. 

[CORRECTION 1/12/14:  This second MSDS from Eastman in fact does reference some toxicity data near the end, including an acute oral toxicity study in rats that identified 825 milligrams per kilogram of body weight as the dose that killed 50% of exposed rats within a short period of time.  We were alerted to these data by a commenter on this post (thanks!) and by this article by Ken Ward, Jr., in the Charleston Gazette.  The article indicates the study itself, done in 1990, is not publicly available and is considered proprietary by Eastman.  The article also explains that this study is the basis for the derivation of the "safe" level of 1 part per million that government officials have apparently set.  Note, however, that this study only examined lethality, and it is highly questionable to seek to apply it to other non-lethal effects.  Also note that the more recent MSDS we linked to above does not contain or reference any toxicity data, indicating none are available.  This points to a common problem with MSDSs, which are prepared by companies and are often notoriously inaccurate, incomplete and out of date.]

We’ve searched major databases for information on the hazards of this chemical.  None is available.  Let me repeat:  No health data are available on this chemical

[CORRECTION 1/12/14:  See italicized note above.  Despite this new information, it remains accurate to say that no health studies are publicly available on this chemical.]

Specifically, we searched the following government sources for any hazard data on MCHM (using the CAS number), and came up empty:

How, you might well ask, is this possible?  How can a chemical in active production and use – and now being released into the environment and exposing people – be on the market without any [ADDED 1/12/14: publicly available] hazard data or evidence of its safety?

The sad truth is this chemical is one of tens of thousands of chemicals on the market today with little or no safety data.  MCHM is one of the 62,000 chemicals that were already in use when TSCA, our nation’s main chemical safety law, was passed in 1976.  All of these chemicals were grandfathered by TSCA:  That means they were simply presumed to be safe, and EPA was given no mandate to determine whether they are actually safe.  Even to require testing of these chemicals under TSCA, EPA must first provide evidence that the chemical may pose a risk – a toxic Catch-22.

This tragic incident is already imposing enormous burdens of uncertainty, anxiety, and economic costs on the hundreds of thousands of Americans directly affected.  Whether and to what extent it will also take a toll directly on their health remains to be seen.

While accidents happen, of course, the tragedy is compounded by the fact that much of the impact of this spill could have been avoided had basic safety information on this chemical been available.  Long-overdue reform of TSCA – which is finally on Congress’ agenda – could go a long way to addressing that part of the problem.

How many more such incidents must happen before Congress acts?

 

This entry was posted in Health Policy, Regulation, TSCA Reform and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

10 Comments

  1. Alisha
    Posted January 11, 2014 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    I live in Charleston, WV and this is very unsettling to have this occur but can get few answers. The outpouring of support from those not affected is helping to make things somewhat unbearable. Hoping this is resolved soon

    • Alisha
      Posted January 11, 2014 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

      *make things somewhat bearable

      • Elaine
        Posted January 12, 2014 at 4:41 am | Permalink

        I found an msds that has some tox. Info. Not sure if it's the exact same composition as what spilled but the main constituent has the same CAS number. http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/wvpn/files/201401/MSDS-MCHM_I140109214955.pdf

        • Richard Denison
          Posted January 12, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

          Elaine: Thanks very much for flagging this. I have made a correction to the post as follows:

          [CORRECTION 1/12/14: This second MSDS from Eastman in fact does reference some toxicity data near the end, including an acute oral toxicity study in rats that identified 825 milligrams per kilogram of body weight as the dose that killed 50% of exposed rats within a short period of time. We were alerted to these data by a commenter on this post (thanks!) and by this article by Ken Ward, Jr., in the Charleston Gazette. The article indicates the study itself, done in 1990, is not publicly available and is considered proprietary by Eastman. The article also explains that this study is the basis for the derivation of the "safe" level of 1 part per million that government officials have apparently set. Note, however, that this study only examined lethality, and it is highly questionable to seek to apply it to other non-lethal effects. Also note that the more recent MSDS we linked to above does not contain or reference any toxicity data, indicating none are available. This points to a common problem with MSDSs, which are prepared by companies and are often notoriously inaccurate, incomplete and out of date.]

    • Anthony C. Tweedale
      Posted January 21, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Good detailed critique, Richard. But no hope of fixing TSCA unless RAssors are forced to use academia's toxicity studies, which are 100% excluded from pre-market RA. When there is a data gap, as with 4-MCHM (it's almost total, as you detail!), the law should require academicians to perform the studies. Obviously industry knows that risk (known to have decade-long programs to monitor the indy literature "to spot problems early"!) and so is funding academia like mad, but academia is naturally resistant, and journal disclosures of CoI are almost good enough (it helps to avoid most (not all) j's with 'toxicology' or 'pharmacology' in their titles, for historical reasons).

      See my comment explaining how industry excludes academia and why their studies are insensitive; on NRDC's Jennifer Sass's recent excellent blog post dissecting the one chronic tox study on MCHM; at:
      http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/jsass/doing_the_math_on_the_west_vir.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+switchboard_jsass+%28Switchboard%3A+Jennifer+Sass%27s+Blog%29

  2. JANE
    Posted January 12, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    We are making it through this incident….It could be worse….no heat or electric at this time of the year would be hard to deal with…As Mountaineers, we WILL get this behind us..

    • Linda Taylor
      Posted January 14, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      Just as a note, the TSCA Interagency Testing Committee did add CAS Number 34885-03-5 Cyclohexanemethanol, 4-methyl- to the appendix of the 58th ITC report. I can't see where the government added the chemicals from the Appendix to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) section
      4(e) Priority Testing List. In the federal register notice, it says

      "the ITC is listing 286 new HPV chemicals in the appendix of this 58th Report to provide interested Federal and State agencies, stakeholders, and the public with the CAS numbers and names of chemicals with production or
      importation volumes exceeding 1 million pounds on only the 2002 IUR."

      You can find it in the following federal register notice and in the Appendix to the 58\th\ ITC Report–Chemical Abstracts Service Registry Number (CAS No.) and TSCA Inventory Names of 286 HPV Chemicals in the
      2002 Inventory Update Rule, But Not in the 1990, 1994, or 1998 Inventory Update Rules

      http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2006-07-11/html/06-6126.htm

      • Tom Natan
        Posted January 15, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        The chemical hasn't been added to the testing list. EPA is simply letting the public know that this particular chemical is now produced in amounts exceeding a million pounds, or at least as of the 2002 submissions. The testing list is a different matter.

        • Richard Denison
          Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

          Thanks, Linda and Tom. Prompted by Linda's note, I too confirmed EPA noted the chemical as being high-volume starting in 2002 but did not add it to the testing list at the time of the report Linda cites. Nor has EPA done so since. Searches of the most recent databases indicate this chemical appears never to have been sponsoroed for testing by its manufacturer(s) either under the US' high-volume chemical voluntary testing program or under the OECD's sister program.

  3. KarenSherryBrackett
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    4-methylcyclohexane methanol is an improper list search for the chemical in terms of chemical nomenclature. Even so it does not explain why a day after the incident the MSDS disappeared offline for the correct nomenclature of the chemical name for MCHM which is 4-methyl,1-cyclohexanemethanol. The name has no spaces in it. In addition, it does not smell sweet or like licorice rather in stead smells more like sewer. Even if it reacted and became a carboxylate acid it would not smell sweet and rather instead would smell like a goat or goat sweat. The water plant is testing for the chemical Freedom Industries told it to look for and consequently has uncovered a ground leaching problem from old contamination problems. The real issue here is what was in the tank that was mistaken for the chemical that was suppose to be in the tank. From the clues on line from news reports, it sounds like a phytoestrogen based on the natural extract anise which is cheap to purchase also known as p-Anisaldehyde or more precisely 4-methoxybenzaldehyde. So, either someone attempted to cut corners or mistakenly ordered the wrong chemical in the first place. There are many companies in America who are distributors for MCHM which is largely made overseas. The switch could have happened overseas either by accident or on purpose. If natural anise was replaced… in high concentration like this it is known to reduce reproductive rates in both humans and livestock, because it also has a benzene ring like MCHM it is toxic and somewhat carcinogenic. The companies need to be asked by the press what their quality assurance test procedures are for verifying shipments of their chemicals that they are what they are labeled to be before naively putting any chemical into process… because such naiveté could have disastrous explosive results in many chemical plants. Blind trust is not acceptable in this day and age.

  • About this blog


    Science, health, and business experts at Environmental Defense Fund comment on chemical and nanotechnology issues of the day.
    Our work: Chemicals
  • Categories

  • Get blog posts by email

    Subscribe via RSS

  • Filter posts by tags

    • aggregate exposure (10)
    • Alternatives assessment (3)
    • American Chemistry Council (ACC) (55)
    • arsenic (3)
    • asthma (3)
    • Australia (1)
    • biomonitoring (9)
    • bipartisan (6)
    • bisphenol A (19)
    • BP Oil Disaster (18)
    • California (1)
    • Canada (7)
    • carbon nanotubes (24)
    • carcinogen (22)
    • Carcinogenic Mutagenic or Toxic for Reproduction (CMR) (12)
    • CDC (6)
    • Chemical Assessment and Management Program (ChAMP) (13)
    • chemical identity (30)
    • chemical testing (1)
    • Chemicals in Commerce Act (3)
    • Chicago Tribune (6)
    • children's safety (23)
    • China (10)
    • computational toxicology (11)
    • Confidential Business Information (CBI) (53)
    • conflict of interest (4)
    • consumer products (48)
    • Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA) (4)
    • contamination (4)
    • cumulative exposure (4)
    • data requirements (46)
    • dermal exposure (1)
    • diabetes (4)
    • DNA methylation (4)
    • DuPont (11)
    • endocrine disruption (28)
    • epigenetics (4)
    • exposure and hazard (49)
    • FDA (8)
    • flame retardants (20)
    • formaldehyde (15)
    • front group (13)
    • general interest (22)
    • Globally Harmonized System (GHS) (5)
    • Government Accountability Office (5)
    • hazard (6)
    • High Production Volume (HPV) (22)
    • in vitro (14)
    • in vivo (11)
    • industry tactics (41)
    • informed substitution (1)
    • inhalation (18)
    • IUR/CDR (27)
    • Japan (3)
    • lead (6)
    • markets (1)
    • mercury (4)
    • methylmercury (2)
    • microbiome (3)
    • nanosilver (6)
    • National Academy of Sciences (NAS) (20)
    • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (7)
    • National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) (5)
    • National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) (7)
    • National Toxicology Program (1)
    • obesity (6)
    • Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) (3)
    • Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) (4)
    • Office of Management and Budget (OMB) (16)
    • Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT) (3)
    • oil dispersant (18)
    • PBDEs (16)
    • Persistent Bioaccumulative and Toxic (PBT) (22)
    • pesticides (7)
    • phthalates (17)
    • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) (5)
    • prenatal (6)
    • prioritization (35)
    • report on carcinogens (1)
    • revised CSIA (3)
    • risk assessment (69)
    • Safe Chemicals Act (24)
    • Safer Chemicals Healthy Families (33)
    • Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) (20)
    • Small business (1)
    • South Korea (4)
    • styrene (6)
    • Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) (15)
    • systematic review (1)
    • test rule (17)
    • tributyltin (3)
    • trichloroethylene (TCE) (3)
    • Turkey (3)
    • U.S. states (14)
    • vulnerable populations (1)
    • Walmart (2)
    • worker safety (23)
    • WV chemical spill (11)