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Chemical spill activates Virginia Tech engineers in effort to determine long-term effects

Virginia Tech faculty engineers and students are unravelling fundamental chemical and health properties of the chemical that contaminated the drinking water for the residents of West Virginia.

Fueled by a $50,000 National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant, the team seeks to understand the properties of a chemical mixture called crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), according to study leader Andrea Dietrich, a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The research team, which includes associate professor Daniel Gallagher, assistant professor Robert Scardina, and senior analytical chemist Jody Smiley of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is determining the long-term fate of the chemicals in the drinking water distribution system and the environment.

This industrial chemical mixture is used during the separation and cleaning of coal products. More than 10,000 gallons of the chemical leaked from a storage tank near Charleston, W.Va., and entered the river upstream of a water-treatment plant on Jan. 9. The drinking water of more than 300,000 West Virginians was contaminated.

Water restrictions began to be lifted on Jan. 13 but residents are still detecting the telltale odors of MCHM.

"Residents were alerted by a strong licorice odor that led many people to think at first that the air was polluted," Dietrich said. "In that respect, consumers are important sentinels for exposure to low levels of MCHM. As is typical of chemicals that were grandfathered under the Toxic Substances Control Act, not a lot of data exists about the product."

Dietrich said many knowledge gaps exist about the short- and long-term fate of the chemical in water systems. The research will provide fundamental chemical properties that can be used to estimate human exposure through drinking water and indoor air pollution.

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Contact: John Pastor
Virginia Tech

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