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Elk River spill III

Dear Reader,

What is safe ?

This is a good question for us to ask. Recently in the US a coal washing plant accidentally spilled a large volume of 4-methyl-1-hydroxymethyl cyclohexane into the Elk river, now while I do not like water which is tainted with something I have to ask how safe / dangerous is it.

I was interested to see that a Midwife (Lesley Rathbun) in the US has been quoted as saying “Nobody knows what this chemical is or what it can do, or how much is not good. Pregnant women have all sorts of things they can be worried about when pregnant, and they have to have some sort of trust in the state and federal agencies.”

I have emailed her to ask why she is concerned about this chemical to see if there is something about it which causes her to be concerned about it, and I am awaiting her reply.

Lets look at this short quote and take it apart and examine it.

  • The statement that “Nobody knows what this chemical is”

This is a statement which can be understood in several ways, if we use super formal English then this is a statement which suggests that no person on this earth (above it or below it) knows what the chemical is that was involved in the accident. I think that this would be an unreasonable statement to make as it is already known what the identity is of the chemical which has been spilled is.

An alternative reading of the text is that “none of the general public have heard of the chemical involved in the spill”, I can quite believe this statement. Before the Elk river spill I have to confess that I had never heard of or considered 4-methyl-1-hydroxymethyl cyclohexane. I have less of an excuse than the typical member of the public as I have two degrees in chemistry and I am a docent in organic chemistry, but it is impossible even for docents to be able to have considered every possible molecule in the big wide world.

Well we can have a go at educating the public as to what this molecule is, so maybe we can do something about this first issue.

  • “or what it can do, or how much is not good.”

This is a great question which is caused by a lack of data, I have looked quickly at the molecule in question and the aldehyde / carboxylic acid which can be formed by oxidation of the alcohol group in the body. None of these compounds have a structural feature which screams out at me “toxic”, and a quick search of the literature suggests a general lack of knowledge about the substance. I would say that for an industrial product to have been used for some years and not attract the attention of the biochemists it is likely to be a substance with little if any biological activity.

If it was an acute poison then I would expect it to have been noticed as a result of an accident, the chances are that people have been splashed with the chemical and it has been fed to rodents, in rodents the substance does not seem to be very toxic and as no reports exist of human poisonings then I think we can conclude that it is not a quick acting poison.

I would also say that as no large scale fish kills have occurred in the river it does suggest that the chemical is not toxic.

Longer term exposure is harder to deal with, also the problem exists that in todays society routine toxicology testing on animals is not socially acceptable. I also feel unhappy about the idea of doing animal experiments with every chemical in existence just to obtain the data. To my mind the work cannot be justified, the use of animals in research must be restricted to experiments where it can be argued that a clear need exists for the data and that no non animal alternative exists.

Now as I can not find any sign of the CDC work on the substance which suggests that it is “safe” then I can not make a judgement of how good the work is, but right now I can see a case for testing the chemical with cell lines or with bacteria / yeasts in things like the Ames test. Looking at the compound I think that it will not be a mutagen according to the Ames test, even if you include the mashed up rats liver which will give you metabolic activation of some carcinogens. Some carcinogens are in reality precarcinogens, they need to be activated by the body to form the thing which induces cancer.

While the Ames test is not perfect (some false positives and false negatives do occur) it is a good test for carcinogens which act by damaging the DNA. The majority of carcinogens act by harming DNA thus making it a good screening test.

I would also say that maybe some testing with pregnant fish could be justified to find out if the substance which humans have now been exposed to at trace levels is able to pose a reproductive threat. I would imagine that the Zebra fish would be used for such an experiment. The fact that the substance does not appear to kill adult fish will make it slightly more easy to test it for reproductive effects in fish.

  • “Pregnant women have all sorts of things they can be worried about when pregnant”

This is a rather grey statement, a woman can worry about all manner of things while pregnant. Some of these things are perfectly valid things to worry about, I hold the view that a woman who is pregnant who needs radiotherapy for cancer of the cervix should consider the real threat to her baby much more than the woman who is concerned that laughing at a joke is going to cause her baby to change into an alien. Both are things which a woman could worry about but I have chosen two examples from opposite ends of the spectrum of how serious a threat they are to a fetus.

  • “and they have to have some sort of trust in the state and federal agencies.”

I hold the view that both the state and federal agencies should exist to serve the needs of the citizen, but serving the needs of the citizen does not mean that the agency should attempt to ban everything in an attempt to make the world a safer place. While some substances and activities should be restricted or even banned, a ban should not be imposed without good evidence or at least solid reasoning.

The idea of banning a chemical because it has a funny smell is not reasonable, I would say that no relationship exists between how offensive the smell is and how harmful a substance is. I can think of plenty of nasty things which either have nice pleasant smells (or no smell) and plenty of chemical sheep in wolves clothing which stink to high heaven but are quite harmless.

I also think that if the state starts to suffer from banamania (mania for banning things) then the citizen will suffer as medical products will be impossible to obtain and also employment is impossible to obtain as every job requires some chemicals. For example a school teacher needs a stick of calcium sulphate (blackboard chalk) which they use to write on a slate board (old fashioned blackboard). While you can replace the blackboard with some modern electronic white board smart board gadget this will require a far wider and more complex array of chemicals to make it and to operate it. So if we ban all “chemicals” then we will not even be able to write on the blackboard.

Furthermore the citizen will suffer under banamania when many household products are outlawed, for example in Sweden we make great use of glass fibre to keep our homes warm. Without the glass fibre the house would be much harder to heat and also if we take the glass from our windows things are going to get rather disagreeable in winter. Part of me would like to challenge anyone who has banamania to sleep naked in my garden during the worst part of a Swedish winter without a sleeping bag, or maybe I should not as I do not want to have to deal with the paperwork with the local police which is required when frozen dead bodies are found on the lawn.

Trust me unless you have a very thick sleeping bag (made from “chemicals” you will die if you try sleeping outside in -20 oC winter.

So I hope that my reader can understand that banamania is not good for society, on the other hand a refusal or failure to ban some substances is equally bad for society. When I was a boy, I once saw a toy which would make most chemical safety inspectors very upset. It was a mercury maze, a plastic maze with a drop of mercury inside it.

Now regardless of what you might think about mercury, I strongly hold the view that toys containing mercury in this form should be illegal. Another household item I think deserves a ban is the very old home science kit which contained 106Ru and other radioactive sources.

Also it is important that the regulator does not serve the wants and desires of industry at the expense of the needs of the citizen.


One Response

  1. To your last point: US environmental regulations are (to Europeans, at least) often shockingly lax and often seem to be much more aligned with the interests of the corporations they were supposedly regulating, than the people they were meant to be protecting. (As a parallel, you might consider how many antibiotics and growth hormones American cattle get fed, vs what European farmers are allowed to do. Or see what the air quality is like in )

    Thus there’s probably some skepticism among people in the affected area that the EPA, etc would be truly reporting what that terrifying-sounding cyclohexane was going to do to people. Stronger regulators usually lead to more trust that the experts know what they’re talking about, and aren’t just providing a rubber stamp for industry to dump by-products in the cheapest way possible.

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