In January 2014, a liquid used to wash coal was spilled into the West Virginia Elk River, a primary municipal water source serving about 300,000 people. NTP carried out a research program for toxicological characterization of the spilled chemicals, in response to a July 2014 nomination from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (CDC/ATSDR). NTP used studies in rodents, toxicity tests in cells and other lower animal species such as fish and worms, and computer modeling to predict toxicity.
Throughout a year of conducting these toxicity tests, NTP regularly updated the public and other federal agencies on study findings. NTP studies reconfirmed that 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), the main component of the spill, is a skin irritant. NTP also found that MCHM caused lower weights in fetuses of pregnant rats exposed to very high doses. Although this fetal growth effect in rats does not establish that MCHM would cause similar effects in humans, it identifies a potential vulnerable life stage. No significant health effects were found for the other spill chemicals. Collectively, NTP studies support adequacy of the drinking water screening levels established at the time of the chemical spill.
WVU researchers collect a water sample from the Elk River in Charleston, WV. (Photo courtesy of Raymond Thompson/West Virginia University)