Federal Report Shines Light On Health Impacts Of West Virginia Chemical Spill

The Freedom Industries site in West Virginia, which released 10,000 gallons of chemicals into a drinking water supply, is seen in this Jan. 13, 2014, photo. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/STEVE HELBER
The Freedom Industries site in West Virginia, which released 10,000 gallons of chemicals into a drinking water supply, is seen in this Jan. 13, 2014, photo. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/STEVE HELBER

People who went to the Emergency Room after the notorious chemical spill in West Virginia experienced symptoms that were “consistent” with the mysterious substance involved in the leak, a joint report by both the West Virginia and federal Departments of Health said Wednesday.

After 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM — a licorice-scented chemical mixture used in the coal production process — spilled into the Elk River and tainted the water supply for 300,000 West Virginians in January, nearly 600 people checked themselves into local hospitals. The most common symptoms were what federal epidemiologists called “mild” illnesses, such as rash, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

But little was known about MCHM at the time of the spill, and it was unclear whether people were experiencing real problems, or just seeing symptoms out of sheer paranoia. At the time, the U.S. Department of Health would not say whether the chemical had any negative health effect until it released Wednesday’s study, called an “epi-aid” study, which reviews medical records for those who went to the hospital after the spill.

As of Wednesday’s report, the connection between the symptoms and the chemical is still cloudy — but the agencies acknowledge its possibility.


“These data can not ‘prove’ that MCHM caused the reported symptoms; however, these data are consistent with what is known about MCHM from animal studies,” the report said, noting that there is no scientific way to “reliably distinguish” mild illness caused by the chemical from normal mild illness. “These symptoms are consistent with known health effects of MCHM.”

Though the study does little in terms of conclusive results, it does shine a light on something greater: the amount of mystery that still surrounds both short- and long-term health impacts from the chemical spill, which is still a large part of life in some of the places where it occurred. Even though the spill happened in January, some residents still detect MCHM’s licorice-like scent coming from their faucets, and question whether the water is safe to drink.

The data analyzed in the joint study was from hospital admissions from January 9, the day the spill was first reported, and January 23, a few days after West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin told residents that it was “their decision” whether or not to use tap water. From that time 584 patients were treated, but only 369 records were included because of either a lack of symptoms, duplicate records, or other inconsistencies. More than 96 percent of those patients were treated and released, while 3.5 percent were hospitalized — all of whom had chronic illnesses such as kidney, liver or lung disease.

It is unclear how many people have experienced symptoms after that time, and if they did, whether they would know to be able to trace it to MCHM. Repeated or prolonged exposure to the chemical has been found to “cause headaches, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, and can also cause a skin rash.” But comprehensive health effects — what happens if the diluted chemical is ingested, or how exposure to the chemical could affect people in the long term — are largely a mystery, and residents there have largely had to figure out their symptoms for themselves.

Long-term effects are also unclear. There is currently no data on crude MCHM’s carcinogenic effects, ability to cause DNA mutations and physical deformities, or its ability to interfere with human development, according to the chemical’s Material Safety Data Sheet.


The issue is clearly important for those who may still be being exposed to the chemical on a daily basis. On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) wrote to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asking for the agency to provide details about its effort to determine a safe level of exposure to the chemical.

“[The] spill has made it clear that additional information needs to be available for chemicals circulating in the marketplace that may impact human health,” she wrote. “In cases where that information is not available, however, health officials should error on the side of informing that public of the uncertainty.”