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Little is Known About the Dangers of the Chemical Spilled in West Virginia's Elk River

Jan 15, 2014

The effects of the chemical at the center of the massive chemical spill into West Virginia’s Elk River, are largely unknown, even by the experts. The chemical, 4-methyl-cyclohexane-methanol (MCHM), is used to clean coal.

Although thousands of gallons of MCHM leaked into the Elk River, leading to a ban on water for most uses to about 300,000 people for at least five days, very little is known about the effects of the chemical, according to National Public Radio (NPR). In fact, according to the NPR report, most chemists and toxicologists have never heard of MCHM; neither had the water company in West Virginia or emergency responders handling the spill.

According to state officials, they sought advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about when to lift the ban. At the time of the spill, the CDC had no standard for how much of the chemical is safe in water for drinking. Because of that, the agency had to create a standard, relying on the minimal research conducted on MCHM, which involved one animal study that determined the lethal dose for rats, according to NPR.

"And from that you would decrease the proposed level down further and further, taking into account all the uncertainties," says Vikas Kapil, chief medical officer at the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health. As part of the determination, the CDC also created a safety factor into its limits because health officials were unclear if humans are more sensitive than rats to MCHM, The CDC also added other safety measures for specific populations, including pediatric and senior patients, the NPR indicated.

"There are unknowns," acknowledged Karen Bowling, West Virginia's secretary of health and human resources. "So we have to rely on what's already known about [it] and what's [been] tested about this particular chemical,” NPR reported.

West Virginia officials also sought assistance from safety information companies, which are mandated to provide information on the chemicals they maintain, These material data sheets did not contain a great deal of information on MCHM. In fact, "The entries were largely 'data not available' for this particular compound," Sharon Meyer, a toxicologist from the University of Louisiana, Monroe, told NPR.

"There are 85,000 chemicals in commerce right now in the United States, and we cannot possibly test all the chemicals for all their different properties," Rolf Halden, an engineering professor at Arizona State University who researches the way chemicals impact people and the environment said, according to NPR.

The American Association of Poison Control Center indicates that MCHM is known for its use in the “froth floatation,” CNN recently reported. The chemical may be inhaled and ingested, and may make contact with the skin and eyes. Much still remains unknown about the chemical; however, some of the known shorter term side effects may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhea
  • Red or irritated skin
  • Itching
  • Rash
  • Eye irritation
  • Irritation of the nose, throat
  • Drowsiness
  • Narcosis (unconsciousness brought on by exposure) in animals

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