Chemical Spilled In West Virginia Can Cause Cancer, Lawsuit Alleges

The Freedom Industries site in Charleston, West Virginia, where 7,500 gallons of crude MCHM spilled and contaminated water for 300,000 residents. CREDIT: EMILY ATKIN
The Freedom Industries site in Charleston, West Virginia, where 7,500 gallons of crude MCHM spilled and contaminated water for 300,000 residents. CREDIT: EMILY ATKIN

The manufacturer of the chemical that contaminated potable water for 300,000 West Virginians has known all along that it can cause cancer, according to allegations in a new class action lawsuit.

West Virginia residents and business-owners filed a class action lawsuit in federal court on Monday, claiming widespread need for a court-ordered medical monitoring program — including monitoring programs for leukemia and lymphoma — for anyone exposed to 4-MCHM. 7,500 gallons of the chemical, used to wash coal, spilled into the Elk River after leaking from a tank operated by Freedom Industries. Since it’s soluble, much of it dissolved into the water.

“MCHM is a combination of two very dangerous chemicals known to cause cancer and other effects,” the lawsuit reads, “but the [Material Safety Data Sheet] sheets issued by the manufacturer, Eastman Chemical Company, ignore and hide the extensive scientific information known showing the risks of the chemical’s carcinogenic and highly toxic component parts.”

The lawsuit asserts thirteen violations by the companies, including counts of negligence, public and private nuisance, failure to warn, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It targets Eastman Chemical for supplying the chemical, Freedom Industries and company executive Gary Southern for negligence while storing it, and the West Virginia-American Water Company for failure to protect its water. The lawsuit claims more precautions should have been taken with the chemical because of a clear and foreseeable risk of harm.


“When 4-MCHM breaks down in the environment, its components are released making essential adequate and fair warning about the true dangers of 4-MCHM,” the lawsuit says. “The foreseeable risks of harm posed by 4-MCHM could have been reduced or avoided by reasonable instructions or warnings; their omission renders the product not reasonably safe.”

The component parts of MCHM are methylcyclohexane and methanol. Separately, both chemicals are “known dangerous and toxic chemicals that can cause latent dread disease such as cancer,” the suit says, citing “extensive medical, epidemiological and toxicological studies” that show cancer and non-cancer risks.

Eastman, however, insists that the company has generated its own studies on MCHM and has found that the chemical does not cause cancer.

“There is no evidence that Crude MCHM is carcinogenic,” Eastman spokesperson Maranda Demuth told ClimateProgress. “Eastman goes to great lengths to ensure our commercial products and facilities meet or exceed regulatory standards.”

Demuth added that the EPA both reviewed and approved the product for its intended use, and did not require additional testing for it.


“Eastman’s first concern is public safety and as soon as we were notified of the spill, we provided agencies as well as emergency responders with complete studies and product information so that they had all of the information necessary to respond to the situation.”

Since the spill contaminated West Virginia’s waters, it has been revealed that emergency responders did not have an adequate response plan in place.

Repeated or prolonged exposure to MCHM is known to cause headaches, irritation, or skin rashes. But as the lawsuit says, there is no data on crude MCHM’s carcinogenic effects, ability to cause DNA mutations and physical deformities, or its ability to interfere with human development. The mystery surrounding what exactly the chemical’s long-term health consequences are have rattled many residents, spurring some to say they may never drink the tap water again, and questioning why more protections weren’t given to a chemical about which so little was known.

As of Thursday, new warnings about the health effects of MCGM were still rolling out. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday advised pregnant women not to drink the water — even though West Virginia American Water had said two days earlier that tap water in some areas was safe to drink.

Representatives from Freedom Industries and Eastman Chemical did not immediately return requests for comment on Thursday.

The lawsuit can be read in full here.