What Is MCHM & Why Is It In My Drinking Water?: Plus More Angry FAQs

by Jamin Arvig on January 16, 2014


Buying Bottled Water In West VirginiaAbove are two of the rightfully angry questions being asked by West Virginia residents this week that are living through an unprecedented water contamination incident.  The most common questions being, of course, ‘when can I drink my tap water again?’ and ‘whose fault is this?’

Without speculating on blame, or unfortunately, when your tap water will be deemed safe if you are still being impacted, here is some information we can provide – both regarding what MCHM is – and some products that may provide you with relief should a similar situation occur in the future:

What Is MCHM?

4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol, or MCHM, is an industrial chemical used to separate coal from rock through a patented froth flotation process.

Why Is MCHM In My Drinking Water?

4-methylcyclohexylmethanol (MCHM)If you are asking this question, you are one of about 300,000 residents in West Virginia that awoke last Friday unable to drink or use their tap water.

WV Public Broadcasting reports that the spill, originating from a chemical storage facility run by Freedom Enterprises, began Thursday night or early Friday morning.  At approximately 7am, residents began complaining of a licorice-like odor in their tap water.

A few hours later, Freedom Enterprise employees noticed the MCHM leak from a hole only about one inch in size.  Before the spill was discovered and containment and clean-up began, up to 7,500 gallons may have seeped into West Virginia’s Elk River, which supplies the water in the Charleston, West Virginia area.

How dangerous is MCHM to humans?

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of this entire debacle is that information regarding MCHM’s health impact to humans is not fully known – whether you ask government regulators, academics, the  compound’s Material Safety Data Sheet or even Freedom Enterprises representatives.

MCHM Material Safety Data Sheet - Effect on Human Health

Bryan Walsh of Time Magazine reports on feedback from Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, who states that there are no human health studies of MCHM.  In fact, a study indicating MCHM’s health effect on rats is proprietary information owned by the Eastman Chemical Company and it has not been released publicly.

The most comforting news for West Virginians so far, and comforting is a stretch, is a quote from West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre who described the  chemical as ‘not particularly lethal.’

What is the environmental impact of MCHM?

“There are possibilities for both short and long-term impacts,” said stream ecologist Jeremy M. Alberts, a doctoral student in the University of Cincinnati’s Biology Department, in an email to WCPO Cincinnati. “I’ve read that the half-life MCHM is about two weeks in water, but nearly 140 days in sediments.  It’s difficult to predict end results, especially given the lack of information regarding the volume of chemical that made its way into the river and how it behaved once it entered the water.”

Environmental Impact of MCHMIn other words, much like the health effect for humans, the environmental impact of MCHM is still an unknown.

Why was a dangerous chemical allowed to be stored in an unregulated facility so close to a water treatment plant?

This is the million dollar question – and blame has been laid at the feet of everyone from officials at Freedom Enterprises to (of course) President Obama.

In reality, the blame is complex, and can be rested on the heads of many throughout the years – and decades – that have seen regulations become more lax and loopholes more large.

WV Public Radio goes on to report that the plant where Freedom Enterprises kept the chemical was used for storage of chemicals, rather than making chemicals.  This exempted the plant from the type of heavier regulations enforced on chemical manufacturing plants.  West Virginia American Water, meanwhile, indicated that they did not know MCHM was storing the chemical so close to the water treatment plant.  Finally, Time  reports that MCHM itself was one of 64,000 chemicals that was grandfathered in and left unrestricted when the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)the federal law regulating chemical safety was passed – back in 1976.

What if I accidentally drank some MCHM?

Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 and consult with a doctor or physician as soon as possible, especially if developing headaches or nausea.  It should be noted that no serious health effects have been reported, as of yet.

How will I know if my water is safe to drink?

West Virginia American Water Water Safety Map - January 16, 2014West Virginia America Water officials are clearing zones as the water is deemed to contain only safe levels of this chemical.  A real-time water safety map can be found linked above. That said, there will still likely be lingering effects, including smells, odors – or as Erin Brockovich shares in her photo below – discoloration.

Steps that officials at West Virginia American Water and the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) recommend taking after your tap water has been declared safe are to flush your water systems, thoroughly clean and disinfect faucets and appliances and replace all water filters in use.

Water Discoloration in West VirginiaFor help in getting the water filters you need, visit the WaterFilters.NET website or call our customer service team at 1-888-801-PURE (7873.)

How can I protect myself from this going forward?

An incident like this is unprecedented and uncommon.  We cannot in good faith tell you that anything we offer will protect you from this type of chemical spill going forward, if for no other reason that even the experts do not know what the full impact of this chemical is.

But other types of water incidents, including boil water alerts, happen frequently whenever there is a water line break or water pressure change.  And we can help protect you against these types of incidents.

Doulton W9361122 Stainless Steel Gravity Filter SystemGravity water filtration systems, including the Doulton SS2 Gravity System (W9361122) – pictured to the left – are more equipped to reduce or virtually remove several types of contaminants and some chemicals courtesy of the ceramic filter’s torturous path porosity.  These types of water filtration systems are not a bad thing to keep tucked away in your home, for use when you need them.

Additionally, a whole house ultra-violet water filter like the Trojan UV Max filtration system pictured, will help to kill off many of the bacteria and pathogens that are common in water lines, when boil water alerts are called.

Trojan UV Max IHS12-D4 Integrated Home UV Water Filter System

If you need help finding a new water filtration system that can better protect you from water contamination incidents going forward, I would encourage you to 1-888-801-PURE (7873.)

I invite you to like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter or +1 us on Google+ where we will continue to post the latest updates regarding the water contamination situation in West Virginia.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tyler January 17, 2014 at 1:39 pm

This is the case for most chemicals found in the water, as they just aren’t going to feed this chemical or others to humans to see their effects. It will be like all others, and won’t know it’s effects until people start becoming ill in the months or years to come. But with a water filtration system like reverse osmosis water filter, this is something you wouldn’t have to worry about. As for filters that use carbon as their active filter media, I am not sure if this will be sufficient in removing this chemical.

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