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The Elk river spill

Dear Reader,

It has come to my attention that a coal treatment plant in the USA has accidentally spilled a large volume of 4-methyl-1-(hydroxymethyl)cyclohexane into the Elk river. This chemical (also known as 4-methylcyclohexane methanol) is used in a froth floatation process to remove unwanted minerals from coal with is intended for use in the production of coke for use in the metal extraction industry.

Others have already commented on this event, but I would like to warn my reader to keep their wits about them when they read a newspaper, press release or even a blog. The blog which I linked to at the start of this paragraph is written by someone from Greenpeace, which is well known for its dislike of the use of coal. I imagine that a person writing a blog who works in the coal industry would have a different view of the same event and would write about it in a different way.

The Greenpeace blogger comments that 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is toxic, but looking at the compound it does not have any features which would make me view it as a strong poison. I would not want to drink it, but compared to a real nasty like sarin or vinyl chloride it does not look so bad. I do not think that either Acros or Aldrich sell it so it is a little harder to get hold of a MSDS for this chemical, I found one online and it does suggest that in mice the LD50 dose for an acute oral intake is more than 2 grams per kilo of bodyweight. This suggests that it is not a strong acute poison. I made a quick web of science search for “methylcyclohexane methanol” and the words “toxic” or “poison” and I got no hits suggesting that little if anything has been written about its biological effects.

A Reaxys search on the compound also suggests that little has been written about this substance in terms of biochemistry. I would like to suggest that the people in the USA where the tap water has been affected should pay attention to the advice given out by the public health authority in their state, I know in some areas that people have been advised to stop using tap water for some purposes. As I do not know the full facts of the case I can not offer advice regarding the safety of tap water.

I would advise people to be careful when reading a MSDS sheet, bear in mind that the MSDS is often written for a worst case exposure. If we consider the toxin in chilli peppers (Capsaicin), when you look this up at Sigma-Aldrich you are warned that this substance is Toxic if swallowed (R25), Irritating to the respiratory system (R37), Irritating to skin (R38), poses a threat of serious damage to eyes (R41), may cause sensitization by inhalation or skin contact (R42/R43). Sounds like a real terror of a chemical.

While the pure toxin in powder from from the chemical company is a real nasty, I would say that at the concentration it is found in the typical chilli pepper you can get eye and skin irritation but it will be unlikely that a normal person using chilli peppers in the kitchen will be able to experience the worst of the effects such as a serious lasting eye injury or a fatal poisoning. However I am aware of a fatal case of capsaicin poisoning where a infant was fed a infusion of a chilli powder, so do not either eat chilli powder or feed it to your children. For more details see T. Snyman et. al., FORENSIC SCIENCE INTERNATIONAL, 2001, Volume:124, Issue:1, Pages:43-46.

I am also aware that people who are occupationaly exposed to chilli powder can start to experience adverse health effects, the thing to keep in mind is that as Paracelsus commented “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous” which is often summed up as “The dose makes the poison”. Bear in mind that many “harmless” household substances (such as drinking water, sugar and salt) are harmful when consumed in vast amounts. For example a teenaged girl in the USA recently died from drinking too much water while playing “water poker” while in my home town a man fatally poisoned himself with carrot juice. While a moderate amount of water or carrots is healthy these vast doses of “healthy” substances proved to be fatal.

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