A recent spill in West Virginia of a chemical called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) has been in the news for the last few days. It was being used to wash coal to remove dust from it before being transported. A storage tank leaked, allowing it to seep into a river where drinking water is obtained.
MCHM isn’t a commonly used industrial chemical and little is known about its toxicology or the health effects of exposure to it.
This brings up the interesting problem of how to handle this situation when so little is known about the chemical. The local authorities seem to be just telling the residents not to drink the water and waiting until it the problem resolves itself.
From looking at the chemical structure of MCHM, it doesn’t have any obvious warning signs. It is a low molecular weight alcohol, an isomer of octanol, which tend to be fairly benign. But sometimes chemicals can be harmful in surprising ways.