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West Virginia Chemical Spill: We Have Enough Information to Manage the Risk

In a prior post, I addressed the background related to the recent chemical spill that contaminated drinking water in West Virginia, and I highlighted why more regulation would not do much good. But we continue to hear that we need more regulation because we don't have enough information about this chemical and thousands of others. Such claims divert our attention from the real issue: failure to properly implement the many emergency planning laws and programs on the books.

In any case, the claim is wrong. There is enough information about this chemical to manage the risks, and keep them low. But public officials did not effectively communicate the fact that it is the dose that makes the poison. Public exposure to the chemical mixture involved in this spill -- crude MCHM -- is too low to pose any long-term health risks, and worker exposure is managed by proper work practices regulated under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). The only time the public experiences any exposure to this chemical -- which is designed for industrial use only -- is in the case of spills.

In this situation, public exposure was short-term, temporary, and quickly managed. Health effects involved temporary skin and eye irritations. Although official numbers are not yet available, Ken Ward of The Charleston Gazette reported that public officials said that the number of individuals affected was between 450 and 500 cases. If that is true, the spill resulted in short-term health effects among 0.17 percent of the population. There are likely no significant long-term risks from these exposures since health effects like cancer require relatively high, long-term exposures. It is also worth noting that this chemical has been used safely for decades without any evidence of serious health effects.

This perspective does not diminish the fact that thousands of people were inconvenienced and frightened and that many small businesses suffered adverse impacts. Unfortunately, poor communications from public health officials and politicians increased fear and made things worse.

Still the news stories focused on lack of information. Some said that the Material Data Safety Sheet (MSDS), which employers must provide to workers on how handle chemicals per OSHA regulations, for crude MCHM is grossly inadequate. Supposedly, the data sheet lacked necessary details about all the potential risks, particularly the potential long-term risks and complete toxicological data that consumers and workers need. In reality, the MSDS contained enough information to ensure proper and safe handling of the chemical, which is what it is designed to do. It is inappropriate to use this document as “evidence” that we do not know enough about this chemical, because the MSDS is not designed to contain all that information. Rather, it is designed to communicate imminent hazards to workers and provide guidelines for chemical handing to minimize both short- and long-term health risks to workers.

The MSDS covering the chemicals in the crude MCHM mixture does in fact provide information about the hazards and clear guidelines on the risks to workers and methods to control them, including controlling exposure to prevent any problems. It is true that some lines in at least one version (there are several formats for these forms) of the MSDS say, “no data available,” but that does not mean no data exists about the mixture’s components or that we need to worry when exposure is controlled according to the guidelines in the data sheet.

And despite claims to the contrary, there is plenty of toxicological data to indicate that crude MHCM is relatively low risk. The manufacturer, Eastman Chemical, voluntarily submitted 13 studies on crude MCHM during the 1990s to the EPA. The company explains on its website that it did not originally release this data to the public because it was proprietary and it did not want to provide it to competitors for free. Eastman shared this data with public officials and in fact had communicated and explained it all to the local officials immediately when they were contacted after the release was discovered.

After the spill, Eastman made all of these studies publicly available on its website, perhaps because media hype wrongly suggested the company had done little to no research. However, this information is very technical and not particularly helpful to consumers anyway. It was always available to regulators who are equipped to understand and use it. It is worth noting that at any point in time, the EPA could have demanded more information on crude MCHM under the Toxic Substances Control Act, but it did not bother perhaps because of its relatively low risk and because it is only used inside industrial operations.

The federal government has also conducted research on the main chemical in the mixture, 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, which makes up 68 to 89 percent of the mixture. The U.S. National Library of Medicine lists the results of 86 tests, of which 78 found no significant toxicological effects on animal test subjects and the rest were inconclusive, underscoring the relatively low risk associated with this chemical. A summary of toxicological data is also available on the Library of Medicine’s Hazardous Substances Data Bank. This information may be technical and hard to understand for the average person, but that does not mean it doesn't exist and isn't available to the people who understand it and need it to protect the rest of us.

Watch for the next post in this series on the chemical spill, which addresses claims that chemicals in the crude MCHM mixture are grandfathered from the Toxic Substances Control Act.