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MCHM could be more toxic than reported, new study says

The main chemical that leaked into the region’s Elk River drinking water supply might be much more toxic than has previously been reported, according to a new analysis made public Thursday by a researcher who has investigated the incident for the Tomblin administration.

A team led by environmental engineer Andrew Whelton found that Crude MCHM is much more harmful to aquatic life than was indicated by an earlier study performed by Eastman Chemical, which made MCHM and sold it to Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the Jan. 9 leak that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 people in Charleston and surrounding counties.

The findings provide “no direct comparison” between aquatic life impact and potential human health effects but have “the potential to provide some critical insights into Crude MCHM’s toxicity” and highlights the need for more research, Whelton said.

“Seven different studies have been carried out that confirmed health impacts were caused by contaminated tap water exposure,” Whelton said. “When will the focus shift to dedicating resources needed to understand the short- and long-term effects of these exposures?”

Whelton, a University of South Alabama researcher, reported the preliminary findings Thursday in Atlanta at the annual conference of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. The study has not yet undergone peer review or been published in an academic journal, and a complete copy of the study was not made public.

The new research was not part of Whelton’s work for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s West Virginia Testing Assessment Project, or WVTAP, but was funded by a National Science Foundation emergency grant that Whelton received after he and a team of students came to West Virginia in the weeks after the leak to test water supplies and assist residents.

Whelton and his team, including graduate student Caroline Novy, sought to replicate a previous Eastman study that examined MCHM’s effects on aquatic life using a microcrustacean, Daphnia manga. Commonly referred to as the water flea, the Daphnia is widely used as a model for toxicological studies on freshwater ecosystems, according to the National Institutes of Health.

In its 1998 study using Daphnia, Eastman had concluded that the “no observed effect concentration,” or NOEC, for Crude MCHM was 50 milligrams per liter. However, using the same conditions and testing procedures, Whelton’s team found a NOEC of 6.25 milligrams per liter — eight times lower than the Eastman study — meaning a much smaller concentration of MCHM would be needed to cause toxic effects. Whelton’s team did its analysis three times to confirm its findings.

Also, the team discovered that, while the Eastman study reported a NOEC of 50 milligrams per liter, the company reported that level to be 40 milligrams per liter when it published key safety data sheets in 2005 and 2011. Those safety data sheets are important because they are used by emergency responders when chemical accidents occur.

Whelton said that, while the Daphnia results provide no direct information about the potential human health effects of MCHM exposure, the inability to reproduce the same NOEC that Eastman reported is a concern.

“Drinking water screening levels developed by WVTAP experts were based on an understanding that data available at the time of the incident were accurate,” Whelton said. “That would imply that if someone else conducted the toxicity test, they would obtain the similar results. Based on our finding, however, our next question is what other Crude MCHM data that has been reported can and cannot be reproduced?”

Maranda Demuth, a spokeswoman for Eastman Chemical, said its own MCHM study was conducted using appropriate guidelines, and company officials had “no reason to question the conclusions of the authors” or “any reason to repeat” the study.

Demuth noted that levels of MCHM in the Elk River never “reached a level that caused an impact on aquatic life under either Eastman’s study or Dr. Whelton’s reported findings.” Data made public by West Virginia American Water and the state do not show MCHM concentrations at the water company’s Elk River intake to be greater than the 6.25 parts per million level “no observed effect concentration” found in Whelton’s analysis. “Additionally, we are not yet aware of any reports of impacted aquatic life as a result of the spill,” Demuth said.

Jennifer Sass, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the new analysis by Whelton’s team shows the problem with relying on limited studies by chemical makers when deciding what is safe for the public.

“But often, we have nothing else available,” Sass said. “Government funding for scientific studies is in rapid decline and, unfortunately, government over-reliance on industry-sponsored data has become a bad habit.”

Richard Denison, an Environmental Defense Fund scientist who has followed the leak closely, said the new MCHM findings “cast an even larger shadow over the assurances given the public” by federal and state health agencies “as to what constituted a ‘safe’ level of exposure to MCHM.”

Maya Nye, executive director of Charleston-based People Concerned about Chemical Safety, said the new findings about MCHM highlight the need for reforms to the federal law that is supposed to regulate toxic chemicals.

“This information has national implications for public health in how we determine safe levels of exposure for the general public, for worker safety and how we determine worker exposure limits and handling procedures, how we regulate chemicals not intended for human consumption, and how much faith emergency responders should place in industry data,” Nye said in a prepared statement.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.

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