Officials Don’t Really Know How Dangerous the Chemical Spilled in West Virginia Is

Science & Space

There was no shortage of confusion when news broke in West Virginia on Jan. 9 about a chemical spill that contaminated water for 300,000 people around the state’s capital. Freedom Industries, the company that owned the tank that ruptured, spilling chemicals into the Elk River, didn’t know how the leak occurred or when it happened. It wasn’t clear who discovered the leak—Freedom Industries employees or Environmental Protection Agency inspectors—and it wasn’t clear how much of the chemical had spilled into the river, with initial estimates of 5,000 gallons eventually rising to 7,500 gallons. It wasn’t clear how long West Virginians would be without water after Governor Earl Ray Tomblin ordered a ban on drinking, bathing or cooking with tap water in the capital of Charleston and nine surrounding counties.

But most of all, it wasn’t clear how dangerous the chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), was to human health—mostly because no one…

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