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Another new wrinkle on the “new” mystery chemical in West Virginia spill

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

Well, this story is rapidly evolving!  Even since my last blog post this morning, new information has come to light as to the identity of the “new” chemical that was present in the leaking tank that led to contamination of the drinking water in Charleston, WV.

The Charleston Gazette has now reported that Freedom Industries, the owner of the leaking tank, has told government officials that the “new” chemical is actually a mixture of two chemical products, both of them made by The Dow Chemical Company.  One of those is in fact the “DOWANOLTM PPh Glycol Ether” I discussed in my last post.  The second is a closely related Dow product called “DOWANOLTM DiPPh Glycol Ether.”   (These links are to Dow’s Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for the two products.)

The first product consists almost entirely (>99.5%) of propylene glycol phenyl ether (CAS no. 770-35-4).  The second is a mixture (see its MSDS), the main component of which (≥60%) is di-propylene glycol phenyl ether (CAS no. 51730-94-0) – a closely related chemical.

My earlier post indicated that a Dow contact had told me this morning it does not make a “stripped” version of its PPh product, and hence did not believe it was the supplier of the material to Freedom Industries.  As I noted in that post, use of the “stripped” designation to describe the “proprietary” chemical listed in the MSDS supplied yesterday by Freedom Industries for the “new” chemical had suggested the substance had somehow been further distilled.

But the latest article in the Charleston Gazette helps to clarify the situation.  It cites State officials indicating that Freedom Industries’ “PPH, stripped” is in fact a mixture of the two Dow products.

Interestingly, the MSDSs for the two Dow products reference a considerably larger amount of toxicity data than does Freedom Industries’ MSDS.  It appears, therefore, that there may be more data for officials to go on to assess potential risks associated with this “new” chemical.

Dow’s Technical Data Sheet and Product Safety Assessment for DOWANOLTM PPh Glycol Ether” list several uses for the product, none of which appear to explain why Freedom Industries would have added the product to the tank of MCHM, which is used to wash coal.

There appear to be some disconnects between Dow’s knowledge of how its own chemicals are being used and by whom, and also between the intended uses of such chemicals and their actual use.  These disconnects point to flaws in our current chemical safety policies:  chemical manufacturers often don’t have a full picture of how their chemicals are actually used, and downstream users may not have a clear picture of which uses of a chemical are appropriate or not.

The number of lessons to be drawn from this West Virginia chemical spill appears to be growing by the day.

 

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Is this the mystery chemical in the WV spill?

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

[PLEASE SEE UPDATE TO THE INFORMATION BELOW IN MY MORE RECENT BLOG POST.]

I blogged last night that the Charleston Gazette had reported that a “new” chemical that was revealed to have been present in the tank in Charleston, WV, that began leaking into the Elk River on January 9 and contaminated the drinking water supply for 300,000 residents.

Two alert readers recognized the acronym “PPH” and the description of the chemical in Freedom Industries’ Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for “PPH, stripped”, to which I had linked, and suggested the identity of the chemical might be a grade or form of propylene glycol phenyl ether (CAS no. 770-35-4).

I’ve not been able to find further references to or information on “PPH, stripped,” but with the help of those alert readers I have found information on what appears to be a similar but not identical product made by The Dow Chemical Company, under the trade name “DOWANOLTM PPh Glycol Ether” – see Dow’s Technical Data Sheet and its Product Safety Assessment.  Among the names Dow lists for its product are both “propylene glycol phenyl ether” and “PPh.” 

I’ve compared information available on the Dow and Freedom Industries products.  Physical-chemical properties are similar but not identical for the two materials.  For example, the boiling point for “PPH, stripped” is 247°C, and for DOWANOLTM it’s 241°C.  (This is consistent with the process of “stripping,” by which more volatile components of a mixture are distilled out, which would raise the boiling point of the remaining more concentrated higher molecular weight components of the mixture.)  The liquid densities of the two products also match:  1.06 grams per cubic centimeter.

Both products are indicated as being eye and skin irritants, but of low acute oral toxicity.

I contacted Dow this morning, and asked if the Freedom Industries’ “PPH, stripped” material was supplied by Dow or is the same material.  My Dow contact answered no to each question.  There are quite a few suppliers of this chemical globally.

[PLEASE SEE UPDATE TO THE ABOVE INFORMATION IN MY MORE RECENT BLOG POST.]

It thus appears likely that the “new” chemical in the West Virginia spill is a form of propylene glycol phenyl ether.  But questions remain as to who made the “stripped” version, who supplied it to Freedom Industries, why its specific chemical identity is being claimed proprietary, and what information beyond that in the company’s MSDS is available regarding its hazard properties.

 

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Yet another chemical identified as present in West Virginia chemical spill

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

Just when you thought this story couldn’t get any weirder or worse, it has just been revealed that another chemical substance was present alongside the crude MCHM mixture that leaked into the Elk River and contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginia residents.

A story published late today in the Charleston Gazette by Ken Ward, Jr., reports that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has told officials that a chemical identified as “PPH, stripped” was present in the leaking tank at a level of 5.6%.  A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the substance, provided by the Gazette, describes the substance as consisting of 100% “polyglycol ethers” – but withholds the substance’s specific chemical identity as “proprietary.”

And while the scant toxicity data provided on the substance in the MSDS suggest it has lower acute oral toxicity than the crude MCHM mixture – at least for what is called the “majority component” (suggesting that this substance, too, is a mixture) – the MSDS notes that “PPH, stripped” is a “serious eye irritant” and a skin irritant.

It has already been reported by the Charleston Gazette that some residents making hospital visits did so because of rashes or other skin irritation; other reports indicate eye irritation among residents as well.  It should be noted that the MSDS for crude MCHM reports that it is also a skin and eye irritant.

Some quick searches I’ve done tonight for “PPH” and “PPH, stripped” – including one using ChemIDPlus, a large chemical database maintained by the National Library of Medicine, have not yielded further information.

All this means yet more questions and more uncertainty for West Virginia residents.  A few:

– How did EPA learn of the presence of this new chemical in the spilled material?  So far, EPA’s not talking.

– Why did it take 12 days for this information to come out?  And then, not from the company, Freedom Industries, that owns and operates the leaking tank?

– Has this chemical been monitored for in the river and drinking water samples?  (Presumably not, since its presence was just revealed.)

– Who makes PPH, and will they now reveal its identity given the massive human exposure that has occurred?

– Or will EPA exercise its rarely used authority under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to compel disclosure of the identity of PPH?  Section 14(a)(3) of TSCA provides that confidential business information “shall be disclosed if the [EPA] Administrator determines it necessary to protect health or the environment against an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.”

Surely, this is such a case.

 

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West Virginia officials trust shaky science in rush to restore water service: One-part-per-million “safe” threshold has questionable basis

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

[SEE NOTE ADDED 1/15/14 BELOW]

In a press conference today outlining plans to restart the water system serving 300,000 people, West Virginia state officials and executives from the West Virginia American Water utility company stressed that levels of the toxic chemical that contaminated the supply after last week’s spill had reached a “safe” level of one part per million (1 ppm), the threshold agreed upon by state and federal officials on Saturday.

Unfortunately, the science behind this standard remains unclear.  Based on what we do know, there are good reasons to believe that officials are overlooking significant health risks.  Read More »

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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.  Read More »

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Why can’t ACC tell the truth about the Safe Chemicals Act?

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

It’s very disheartening to see just how far the American Chemistry Council (ACC) has moved away from anything resembling a good-faith effort to debate and advance meaningful reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  There’s more than enough in TSCA reform for stakeholders to debate and disagree about without adding distortions and outright falsehoods to the mix, yet ACC seems intent on doing just that.

The latest indication?  An April 16, 2013 post to ACC’s blog titled “A new year, but the same unworkable Safe Chemicals Act.”  The post purports to identify four fatal flaws in the Safe Chemicals Act of 2013, which was introduced on April 10 and is cosponsored by 29 Senators.  The first two utterly ignore or fault the legislation for major changes made to it to address industry concerns, while the latter two once again restate outright falsehoods ACC has made about the Act – claims that ACC knows are false.  Read More »

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