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Cody A. Blankenship
(April 26, 2015)

Contributed to Toxipedia as part of the University Partnerships Program.


The chemical spill in the Elk River in Charlestown, West Virginia on the 9th of January, 2014, mostly involved a chemical called MCHM (methylcyclohexane methanol), which is only produced in the United States by Eastman Chemical Company. Another chemical called PPH (propylene glycol phenyl ether) was reported to be mixed with the MCHM at low levels, but Eastman does not produce the PPH. These chemicals were stored by Freedom Industries Chemical Complex, which bought the MCHM from Eastman Chemical Company. The toxic chemical was being stored in an above-ground 50,000-gallon metal container at the facility when close to 10,000 gallons leaked into the Elk River (Manuel).

This chemical spill happened one mile above a water treatment plant, causing thousands of residents of Charlestown and surrounding areas to be without usable water because of the risks that this unknown chemical could potentially cause to humans. Over 600 people reportedly visited emergency rooms and 13 people were further hospitalized (Manuel). This spill caused a huge uproar across the nation. West Virginia’s National Guard was called in and the spill was declared a State of Emergency by the governor Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia. This disaster was later declared a Federal State of Emergency by President Barack Obama and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was called in to help with the cleanup and the distribution of fresh water to the residents.

The spill was estimated to cost $61 million (USD) in the first month of the incident (Manuel). The full toxicity of this chemical was unknown at the time; after the spill occurred, research and testing began immediately to figure out the exact toxic effects of the crude MCHM. However, the chemical did not just affect West Virginia; it spread from the Elk River and flowed into the Ohio River, reaching several major cities such as Cincinnati, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; and many cities within Indiana. The “do-not-use” water ban was later lifted in the Charlestown area by the estimate of the lethal dose (LD50) of the animals that were tested with MCHM, by the one-part-per-million (1 ppm) safety level. However even with this estimate, many questions were still unanswered about the toxicity of the chemical. 



Methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) is the chemical that leaked into the Elk River early in 2014. Its chemical structure is CH3C6H10CH2OH and it has a molecular weight of 128.208. It is a colorless liquid that is highly flammable and produces a licorice or alcohol odor (2011, MCHM Data). The boiling temperature of the chemical is 180°C. The toxicity tests that were conducted following the spill showed signs of minor effects on the liver, kidney, and respiratory tract at a dose of 400mg/kg/day. At a dose of 800mg/kg/day test subjects (rats) where shown to have increasing levels of ataxia, causing central nervous system (CNS) depression. After further testing on rats, the LD50 was calculated for the dermal and oral concentrations. The LD50 for an oral dose for both male and female rats was calculated to be 825 mg/kg. On the dermal level the calculated LD50 for both male and female rats was greater than 2000 mg/kg. This means that the chemical is more toxic when orally administered than when dermal contact is the exposure route. (2014, 4-Methycyclohexane Methanol.)

MCHM is hazardous and can even cause death to humans and animals if one comes into contact with the chemical at the right dose. It causes moderate irritation to the eyes, strong irritation to the skin, irritation to the GI tract if ingested, and also irritation to the respiratory tract. Symptoms of poisoning from this chemical, if digested, are nausea, diarrhea, and light-headedness. If one comes in contact with the chemical at a dermal level, the symptoms include rashes, reddening of the skin, and also a strong itch from the irritation. The chemical also affected many ecosystems and caused potential harm to fish populations. Testing was further continued to see the possible effects to the aquatic species that take refuge in the Elk River. These studies focused on determining the LD50 for fathead minnows and also aquatic insects such as the water flea. The data indicated that the LD50 for the minnow was 54.7 mg/L for 96-hour contact, and the LD50 for the flea was 98.1 mg/L for 48-hour contact. According to independent reports and those from Eastman, the chemical had no adverse effects on the aquatic life and no fish kills were reported after the spill (2014, 4-Methycyclohexane Methanol).

Methylcyclohexane methanol is used in the coal industry around the world to help separate impurities out of coal. Around 25% of the coal processing plants in West Virginia use this chemical (Howard). When coal is treated with this chemical, it causes impurities such as sand and dust to float to the top of the cleaning tank. This procedure is widely used when processing coal to become metallurgical coal. This type of coal is then used for the production of steel across the world.  



Eastman Chemical Company makes a wide range of products, from window film to aldehydes. Eastman was first started as Eastman Kodak Company in 1920 by George Eastman, who led the photography industry in the World War II era. The company was first located in Kingsport, Tennessee, which still remains as one of the main locations. In the 1930s, Eastman made huge leaps in its production arrangements. These ranged from additives for gasoline, fibers used for the clothing industry, to new composites of plastics to be used for everyday use and also for the trade industry. Throughout the early 1940s Eastman worked with Holston Ordinance Works in Kingsport, Tennessee, making a highly explosive chemical called RDX to be used in their bombs. In 1942 Eastman took the lead of a Y-12 plant to help create the atomic bomb. In the 1950s Eastman grew by adding a new facility in Texas, which created polyethylene to be used in flashbulb holders and newer cameras. The late 1950s saw the creation of new acrylic fibers, adhesives, and polyester fibers. In the 1960s Eastman expanded again into Zurich, Switzerland and also the new Carolina Eastman was underway. Also during this time, Eastman created polypropylene to be used in the automotive industry and plastic twine was introduced. Through the 1970s Eastman continued to grow, adding another plant in Arkansas that specialized in organic chemicals. In 1978 Eastman made KODAPAK, a polyester plastic that is used for soft drink bottles. This renovated the soft drink market due to the way they were distributed and also packaged. In the 1980s Eastman pledged to create a healthier and safer workplace, and environment, by reducing the use of oil and moving toward the use of coal to create the different chemicals. From the 1990s to the present time Eastman still continues to grow worldwide, opening newer plants and using newer technology to help with the growing business. (A. Eastman). As of today, Eastman Chemical Company is one of the world’s leaders in chemicals, plastics, and fibers with forty-six facilities in 16 different countries (2008, New York Times), and with an array of different products that keep expanding to newer and bigger advancements.

Freedom Industries Chemical Complex was founded in 1986 in Charlestown, West Virginia and specializes in flotation reagents, water-treating polymers, and other specializing chemicals. It is the leading supplier of mining chemical products in the United States (2015, Freedom Industries Inc.). It has plants in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Colorado (Freedom Industries). The main plant that caused the spill is located off the banks of Elk River, and can hold up to 4 million gallons of chemicals. Eastman and Freedom Industries Chemical Complex began their partnership in 2000. The relationship between the two companies ended January 04, 2014 when the last sale before the spill occurred. No other incident occurred with Freedom Industries before the spill in 2014. Freedom Industries Chemical Complex later filed for bankruptcy in the weeks following the spill.  


Route of Exposure

The routes of exposure by which residents of West Virginia came into contact with the methylcyclohexane methanol was dermal or oral contact with contaminated water. Drinking, bathing, and washing hands and kitchen implements were not recommended. Both routes of exposure caused troubling symptoms for the residents.Oral exposure caused many symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Dermal exposure caused major skin irritations. Many people were treated for the symptoms of MCHM exposure. The dermal and oral exposures had symptoms similar to that of the flu and cold. Many of the residents relied on the water to stay hydrated and to maintain a sanitary environment.  


Modes of Action

With this being the first reported methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) spill in the United States, no prepared measures were available for mitigation. Very little was actually known about this chemical and its possible harmful effects at the time of the spill. When this disaster was turned into a State Emergency and also a Federal State of Emergency, many organizations such as FEMA, the EPA, and the West Virginia National Guard were called in to help with the cleanup, testing, and to administer clean water to the residents. Tests were conducted every hour, taking new water samples to examine the levels in ppm of MCHM. The spill cleanup required weeks of water samples, flushing of water systems, and testing before the do-not-use water ban could be lifted. The concentration target that was aimed for by the emergency responders was right under 1 ppm (Manuel). Two months after the spill, residents were still uneasy about trusting the water. Many still did not flush the water out of their houses because they were afraid of the potential for dangerous fumes caused by the MCHM. Others did not know if they could trust the government because of information that was kept from them about what exactly happened during the spill and what the risks were. After the “all clear” sign, people still continued to smell the odor from the chemical in their tap water. It was also reported after further investigation that there were no records of inspections at Freedom Industries for their above-ground tanks. West Virginia’s government passed the “Spill Bill,” which requires inspection of above-ground tanks in the state to help stop the possibility of another spill (Manuel). More toxicity tests are still being conducted on MCHM by the National Toxicology Program to get a better understanding of this widely used chemical. 


Current Events

A year after the spill, a memorial vigil took place in the city of Charlestown to remember the tragedy that occurred. Laws and regulations grew tighter and the push for cleaner water in the rivers and streams of West Virginia are becoming a reality. The fights between politicians and industry lobbyists to keep these strict laws and regulations on the water were happening in the early months of 2015. West Virginia is now one of the few states to actually have written laws on how to protect their waterways. West Virginia’s politicians are pushing to make the Kanawha River a “Category A” waterway, which means that the river and everything on the river will have to abide by drinking water standards. This would open up the possibility for a second drinking water intake system, thus preventing another chemical disaster from occurring in the area. (Ward Jr.)



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