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By Frank J. Dinan, Ph.D.

On Jan. 10, a tank containing 4-methylcyclohexylmethanol (MCHA) leaked thousands of gallons of this chemical, used to remove rocks and dirt from freshly mined coal, into West Virginia’s Elk River. The leak occurred just one mile upstream from the water intake for the city of Charleston. As a result of this spill, an estimated 300,000 people were told not to drink, cook with or wash in Charleston’s water for one week.

Few of us would think of this dreadful incident as a toxicity experiment, but, thanks to the laxity of the regulations that control the use of industrial chemicals in the United States, that’s what it was. The experiment was unintentional, but it will be used to provide toxicity information on MCHA that was not previously publicly available.

In 1976 the federal government passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This 38-year-old law is badly flawed. It does not require the manufacturers of chemicals used in commerce to submit the data they may have on the hazards posed by their products unless they believe they present a substantial risk. Not surprisingly, few manufacturers claim their products fit this category. As currently written, provisions of TSCA protect industry by making it difficult for the Environmental Protection Agency to require safety data on these products. So, thousands of chemicals in commercial use today are protected from scrutiny by a law that seems designed to protect industry rather than the public.

The required Manufacturer’s Safety Data Sheet from Eastman Chemical that was available at the time of the accident warned that MCHA could be harmful if swallowed, but failed to list information for such key categories as carcinogenicity, lethal dose, reproductive toxicity, biodegradability, etc.

West Virginia officials had no access to the vital safety information they so badly needed to respond to MCHA’s threat to their water supply. The state’s only recourse was to ban the use of water by the citizens of its largest city until no MCHA could be detected. It did not even have the information needed to estimate how long that would be.

So, the unintentional toxicity experiment began. How it will turn out, no one knows. The citizens of Charleston, as well as infants born after the leak, will be monitored for increased incidence of diseases and birth defects for years to come to determine the result of their possible exposure to MCHA.

A bill intended to update and reform TSCA, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, Senate Bill 1009, is currently before Congress. While still flawed, this act would substantially improve the public’s protection. We should urge our legislators to support and strengthen this important public health bill before the next disaster occurs.

Frank J. Dinan, Ph.D., is emeritus professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Canisius College.