The West Virginia chemical spill is just one example of a much bigger problem

Image: West Virginians line up at a water filling station at West Virginia State University. A chemical spill prevents them from using tap water. REUTERS/Lisa Hechesky

Over the weekend, Xeni wrote here about a chemical spill in West Virginia that's dumped upwards of 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol into the Elk River just a mile upstream from the West Virginia American Water intake system, contaminating local water supplies. Since she posted, there have been some more updates on this story, including some interesting chemical sleuthing from a couple of great writers.

First off, what is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol? It's used in coal washing, a process that it would be reasonable to think of as "a good thing", because washing coal is what removes a lot of the sulfur that would otherwise contribute to acid rain. Basically, while we'd all prefer we didn't burn coal, if we're going to burn it, we want it to be washed. To do that, coal is crushed fine and dumped into a bath of frothy, foamy water. Relatively light coal floats and sticks to the foam. Relatively heavy sulfurous rock sinks. 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is one of the chemicals that can be used to make the froth.

This could explain why there hasn't yet been any news of major fish kills associated with the spill, writes hydrologist Anne Jefferson at the Highly Allochthonous blog. This stuff is chosen for the job it's meant to do because it's light and floats on water. Meanwhile, because it's winter, most of the fish are hanging out deeper in the water.

But that doesn't mean it's safe and everything is cool. In fact, the big problem with 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is that there doesn't seem to be a well-documented safety profile on it, one way or the other. Deborah Blum, a journalist and author who writes extensively about chemicals, poisons, and toxicology, tried to track down the safety data on 4-methylcyclohexane methanol and had a damn hard time doing so.

At this point, another source – yes, I was making a complete pest of myself — sent me a copy of a 2011 Material Safety Data Sheet. "Caution," it said. "Product can cause skin and eye irritation. Vapors, especially upon heating, can cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract." The safety data sheet was strong on not inhaling the compound – which could cause headaches, breathing difficulty and nausea – and on wearing protective gear in case of an accident.

But here was what caught my attention:

Exposure guidelines: None established for products or components

Decomposition: Unavailable

Ecological information: There is no data available for the product

The real problem here, Blum points out, is much bigger than this one spill. It's the fact that we continue to use many industrial solvents without knowing much (if anything) about what their risks really are and what levels of exposure are safe. Nobody has invested the time or money into learning what should be vital information. (This is where I'd also like to take a moment to suggest that you go read Dan Fagin's book Tom's River. It's about the social, psychological, and health effects of the sort of intentional chemical dumping that happened with abandon throughout much of the 20th century. It will give you a really good idea of why it's important to know more about these chemicals ahead of time. Establishing what the health risks are after the dumping has already occurred turns out to be nigh on impossible, especially if the risks are long-term things like cancer, rather than short-term things like, say, skin rashes.)

Meanwhile, it's becoming clear that the spill also has connections to major lapses in regulatory oversight. As Ana Marie Cox writes in The Guardian, this spill should be a much bigger political deal than Bridgegate.