New Data Says Huge West Virginia Chemical Spill May Have Been More Toxic Than Reported

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CREDIT: AP Photo/John Raby

The mysterious chemical that tainted drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians this past January may have been more toxic than what was previously reported, according to new federally funded research released this afternoon.

Environmental engineer Andrew Whelton tested crude MCHM — a chemical mixture used in the coal production process — and found it to be much more toxic to aquatic life than was reported by Eastman Chemical, the company that makes it. Whelton said he used exactly the same process to test the chemical that Eastman did — the same water chemistry, temperature, quality, and organisms — but found a drastically different result than what was reported on Eastman’s Material Safety Data Sheet for the chemical.

“To be frank, [the drastic difference in results] could be for a number of reasons,” Whelton told ThinkProgress, noting that Eastman did its research on the chemical in 1998. “It could be is that the composition of the crude MCHM they tested in 1998 was different than the crude MCHM [Eastman] sent us in 2014.”

Approximately 10,000 gallons of MCHM spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River on Jan. 9, taking away normal drinking water from 300,000 civilians. In the aftermath, nearly 600 people checked themselves into local hospitals with what federal epidemiologists called “mild” illnesses, such as rash, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Eastman’s data had been used as a basis for public health response following the spill.

However, Whelton was quick to note that the data did not have implications for human health. What it proved, he said, was only that Eastman’s data on toxicity could not be replicated using the same procedures Eastman used. That could eventually have implications for human health, but only if additional research shows that the chemical had a higher toxicity than previously believed.

“What is important is that the findings further demonstrate that additional work is needed to better understand the short- and long-term toxicity implications of this contaminated water,” Whelton said. “Somebody else needs to replicate Eastman’s work, and if the study that someone else conducts turns out to show that crude MCHM is more toxic, then that calls into question the toxicity data was published that was used as a basis for public health response.”

To get his results, Whelton tested multiple different concentrations of crude MCHM on tiny freshwater fleas called Daphnia magna, a common species used to determine how toxic chemicals are because of how far down they are on the food chain. If their population is impacted, Whelton said, it’s presumed that any spill into the environment could impact organisms higher up on the food chain.

What he found was that the tiny organisms would start dying or becoming immobile at a much lower concentration of exposure to crude MCHM than Eastman Chemical had found in its 1998 report. Specifically, Eastman Chemical had found that, in order for crude MCHM to have no observable effects on the environment, the concentration could be up to 50 milligrams per liter of water. Whelton’s data, however, showed that concentrations of the chemical could only be at a maximum of 6.35 milligrams per liter before having an observable effect.

Whelton, like Eastman did in its 1998 study, also measured how much crude MCHM would have been needed to harm 50 percent of the Daphnia magna population. Eastman’s data revealed that 98.1 milligrams per liter would meet that threshold; Whelton’s found that only approximately 50 milligrams per liter would be needed.

“You expect that, when you conduct a study once, if you do it again, you should get similar results,” he said. “If Eastman’s 1998 data is not accurate or reproducible, then what other information used in the [spill] response is not reproducible?”

Eastman did not immediately return ThinkProgress’ request for comment.


Eastman provided ThinkProgress with a statement responding to Whelton’s findings, posted below.

“As reflected in our Q&A and toxicity testing disclosures at, Eastman voluntarily sponsored 18 toxicity tests on the product Crude MCHM and its major component MCHM to evaluate the potential hazards to workers in an industrial environment and to the environment. The laboratories that conducted the studies followed Good Laboratory Practice and used Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) guidelines. Eastman has no reason to question the conclusions of the authors of the studies. Further, Eastman is unaware of any reason to repeat the studies.

“Eastman has not been provided with copies of the studies conducted by Dr. Whelton, and therefore, we are unable to comment specifically on why he performed a study three times that is traditionally only performed once when appropriate standards and protocols are used. Eastman’s daphnia toxicity test referred to by Dr. Whelton was performed on Crude MCHM. It is also unclear to Eastman which substance Dr. Whelton tested. As has been reported widely, the material spilled by Freedom Industries was a mixture of Crude MCHM and certain other products that are not produced by Eastman.

“Based on our understanding of the spill, the concentration of the material spilled by Freedom Industries 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. Additionally, we are not aware of any reports of impacted aquatic life as a result of the spill.”

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