We appear to have gotten lucky in the January 2014 West Virginia chemical spill

Richard Denison, Ph.D.is a Lead Senior Scientist.

[UPDATE:  Please see additions below.  On reflection, my "got lucky" theme here may well have been a poor choice, as I certainly did not mean to imply that the spill was anything other than a nightmare for affected residents; rather, it was my attempt to again highlight the extent to which officials were flying blind at the time due to numerous systemic failures.  While the NTP study I discuss here answers some questions and I believe is cause for some relief, it did not address all concerns, leaves considerable uncertainty, and doesn't begin to undo the damage of this incident and its continuing aftermath.  Apologies to anyone who took my phrase to imply otherwise.]

Readers may recall that I blogged extensively about the January 2014 spill of chemicals into the Elk River near Charleston from tanks used to store the chemical near the river’s edge, which disrupted the drinking water supply and the lives of 300,000 residents for many weeks thereafter.

A key concern was the dearth of health data – both publicly available and otherwise – on the key chemical components of the spilled mixture, which was used to wash coal.  As I reported in a series of blog posts, despite scant data, federal and state officials rushed to establish – and then defend their establishment of – a concentration of one part per million (1 ppm) as the “safe” level of the main component, 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), of the spilled mixture.  I pointed to the lack of a scientific basis for that level, largely because of the lack of adequate health information.

That remained the case even after the chemical’s producer, Eastman Chemical, decided to make public its studies of the chemical that it had hidden, claiming them to constitute trade secrets.  I tried to be careful not to claim MCHM or other spilled chemicals posed health risks, but rather that the lack of safety data was highly concerning, given the widespread extent of exposure.

Among the many outcomes of the spill was an agreement by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) to undertake a thorough study of the potential health and environmental effects of MCHM and other component chemicals.  That study is now complete, and the results were released last week.  

The good news is that the public [see updates to this post] – and those federal and state officials – appear to have gotten lucky:  NTP found no evidence of adverse effects of the chemicals at the doses to which people were exposed – although some effects were seen at significantly higher doses.  NTP noted that effects were not seen at or below the 1 ppm level.

[UPDATE:  I should clarify that the NTP study did NOT address all concerns or potential exposures; it did not look, for example, at inhalation exposures, which were of concern especially during the "flushing" procedures residents were urged to follow as well as during activities such as showering; some analyses found that such exposures may have exceeded levels recommended in federal guidance; see here and here.  Considerable uncertainty remains about the actual levels of exposure people experienced, as very limited exposure information was collected.  An article by Ken Ward in the Charleston Gazette details some of the remaining concerns and still-unanswered questions.]

Lest anyone rush to conclude that the officials setting that level “got it right,” as opposed to getting lucky, NTP’s final report notes (emphasis added):

At the time of the spill, there were few toxicological studies available on which to base a drinking water screening level. The lack of any studies in developing animals and humans was a concern, because developing organisms are typically considered more susceptible than adults to the toxic effects of environmental chemicals. There was also concern about the absence of information on many chemicals that were minor components of the spill.

Upon completion of its study, NTP concluded:

The NTP studies increased our knowledge about the toxicity of MCHM and other spilled chemicals. The results from the NTP studies reduced uncertainty about the information used to develop the drinking water screening levels.

That’s good news, though it took a concerted federal effort and millions of dollars to get to this conclusion – all long after the spill occurred.

As I noted in my blogging, MCHM is no isolated incident:  Many, if not most, chemicals in widespread use lack adequate safety data.  A large part of the blame is attributable to the ineffective Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which tied EPA’s hands when it came to requiring testing and provided no mandate for EPA to review the safety of chemicals in commerce.

Happily, change is underway:  I suspect all of my readers know that TSCA has now been updated and among the changes are several that bear on chemicals like MCHM, including these features of the new law:

  • It establishes a mandate to review chemicals in active commerce like MCHM, with the timing at EPA’s discretion and subject to availability of resources.
  • It requires prioritization of active chemicals like MCHM, and includes storage near significant sources of drinking water as an explicit criterion.
  • It provides EPA with expanded authority to require companies to safety-test their chemicals, by issuing an order rather than through a time-intensive rulemaking, and without having first to make risk or high-exposure findings.

While no panacea, the new TSCA heads us in a new direction that will reduce the likelihood of repeating debacles like that in Charleston, WV.

That also means that, over time, we won’t have to rely on getting lucky to prevent exposing the public to known or unknown chemical risks.

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2 Comments

  1. Franklin Mirer
    Posted July 15, 2016 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I'm concerned about the "don't worry, be happy" tone of the report and your quote of the report. Toxic potential was revealed in some of these short term tests, and there was no clear method of assessing potency. This "clean bill of health" will now compel me to read through all this stuff, particularly the low birth weight result. NTP criteria for developmental and reproductive toxicity are highly non-precautionary (I was a reviewer of the styrene document.)

    Frank Mirer
    CUNY SPH

    • Posted July 15, 2016 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      Frank: Certainly not the tone I intended to convey, though I think the NTP studies shed much more light on the toxicity of MCHM and other spilled chemicals than we had before. I should, however, have done a better job flagging that there are significant remaining uncertainties not addressed by the NTP study (e.g., inhalation exposures), and have now updated the post to add some additional information to do so.