MORGANTOWN, WV -
A West Virginia University researcher is saying state precautions are prudent in light of a declared state emergency following a chemical spill affecting water in southern West Virginia.
The counties of Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane are being advised to use tap water only to flush toilets.
The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, is used as a foaming agent to separate coal from rock in washing plants, said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute.
He said that the chemical, which has a molecule of alcohol in its chemical composition, is soluble in water. Its main effect on humans would be that of an irritant to the eyes, skin and lungs.
The amount of chemical released into the Elk River—which he estimated to be about 3,000 gallons—would translate to 41 milligrams per liter in the Elk River and six milligrams per liter in the Kanawha River using data available now.
"Those are pretty low concentrations," he said. "You would have to drink thousands of gallons of that water to get anywhere near a lethal dose."
But the diluted chemical could irritate skin and lungs.
"I think the state has got it right when it says as a precautionary measure not to use the water for anything but flushing the toilet," he said. "You want to avoid skin contact or a shower, which would allow the chemical into your lungs."
WVU is advising students, faculty and staff who may be traveling to the area to use caution.
The WVU Center for Service and Learning is currently exploring opportunities to reach out to the affected areas.
The WVU Charleston Division is in operation and classes are in session. Patients will not be seen except in the Behavioral Medicine/Psychiatry area.
All WVU Extension offices remain open.
"We are on stand-by to help with any questions related to our services that we can answer," said Cassie Waugh, WVU Extension Service communications and marketing manager. "Our county agents are often point people. We can help if anyone has questions about treating livestock and other things during this event."
The official State of Emergency web page can be accessed here