In West Virginia on January 9.2014, a “very large release” of a chemical occurred on the Elk River 1.5 miles from the water company’s main intake valve ( area where water is taken from the river , purified and then distributed to city) . This water intake delivers purified water to 300,000 people living in Charleston and the surrounding 9 counties. Seven hours after the “release”, the official “do not use the water” notice was circulated to the public. Reports from the public stated that the air and water smelled like licorice. 4-Methylcyclohexane methanol was identified as the chemical; it is used in the coal flotation process to wash the coal. Toxicity of the chemical is unknown.
The WV poison center received calls about the chemical from the public and healthcare providers. Poison center staff on leave was called back to work because of the increased call volume. Most calls were about human exposure but many calls contained questions about animal exposures. Over 3 days the Poison Center received over 1000 calls related to human exposures, 70 calls related to animal exposures, and over 200 information calls about the chemical, in addition to their normal call volume. The poison center has been working in partnership with all hospitals to provide and collect information, and working with the state and local health authorities to provide appropriate information and triage patients. Several l hospital Emergency Departments evaluated patients exposed to the water. On the 2nd day of the incident, all hospitals in WV were required to report any incident-related admissions to the WV poison center.
The chemical spill has impacted everyone, as water can’t be used for washing, drinking, or bathing. Several restaurants and businesses have closed; hospitals are conserving/rationing water. People must obtain bottled water and drinks. There is no way to rid the water of this chemical.
Further information in future Question of the Week.
This question prepared by: John G. Benitez, MD, MPH Medical Toxicologist
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Donna Seger, MD
Tennessee Poison Center
Poison Help Hotline: 1-800-222-1222