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In January 2014 a chemical spill left over 250,000 West Virginians without water for almost a week--and the declaration that the water supply was safe again was based on guesswork rather than science. Here is what you need to know to be prepared.

On January 9, 2014 over a quarter of a million people in West Virginia woke to a warning that their tap water was unsafe for showering, for making coffee, or for brushing teeth, and that there was no estimate of when it would be safe again.

Schools were closed, restaurants were shut down, and hotels quickly locked their doors. Store shelves were quickly stripped of bottled water. Traffic jams built up around National Guard distribution centers offering families a ration of 4 gallons (16 liters) of water.

Hundreds of people visited emergency rooms reporting nausea, vomiting, and rashes, although no deaths from the contamination were recorded.

The culprit, West Virginians quickly learned, was the spill of 10,000 gallons (40,000 liters) of a chemical used to wash coal, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, also identified by its unique identifying “CAS number" 34885-03-5. This chemical has been used by the coal industry for decades, so one might think that the coal industry or the makers of the chemical would have indepth information on how to treat toxic exposure to it. One might be wrong.

It turns out that prior to January 2014 there had been just one study of the toxicity of MCHM. Scientists had fed the chemical to lab rats to determine the dosage at which 50% of the lab rats died. This number is used to set the LD50, the lethal dose of the drug--but that process is not exactly straightforward, either.

The experiments had shown that half the rodents had died when they were given "825 milligrams for every kilogram of body weight." The experimenters then guessed that humans might be 10 times more sensitive to the chemical than lab rats, so they redefined the lethal dose at 82.5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. Then, without any further experiments at all, the researchers took a wild guess and decided that 1/10 of the 1/10 of the lethal dose for rats would be a safe dose for humans, and rounded that figure up to 1 mg per kilogram of body weight, which they then equated to 1 part in a million parts of water, since human beings are mostly water.

None of this makes good sense, but 1 part in a million was set as the safe level for MCHM in drinking water. The chemical had never been tested in humans, and the one study that involved lab rats had only found out levels that are probably lethal, and "less, a lot less" had become the standard for safety. But West Virginians who had nausea, vomiting, and skin rashes knew that whatever level of the chemical had found its way into their drinking water was not safe.

The West Virginia water crisis did not last forever. After three days, levels of MCHM in Elk River water used for much of West Virginia's drinking water supply had fallen to the magical 1 part in a million level, and the river water was declared safe. By January 13, 2014, water that had been processed the week before had been flushed from the pipes. But people continued to get sick, although in smaller numbers, and confidence in the water supply will take a long time to return.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Gabriel. T. Thousands without Water After Spill in West Virginia. New York Times. 10 January 2014.
  • Ward, Ken Jr. Scientists ID amount of chemical they consider safe. West Virginia Gazette-Mail. 11 January 2014.
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  • Photo courtesy of Albert Lozada by Flickr :

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