Toxic Spill in West Virginia: Tox on the Web

January 12, 2014, 3:34 pm

Chemical Leak in West Virginia: On her Wired Science blog Elemental, @deborahblum tries to track down information about 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), a “detergent” (foaming agent) used for washing coal that leaked from a storage tank into West Virginia’s Elk River on Thursday. Not much is known about the toxicology and risk of MCHM, except that it is an irritant. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of West Virginia residents have been advised to stop drinking and bathing in tap water. Blum makes the important point that, although at this point MCHM does not seem to be overwhelmingly toxic, not enough research has been done to know for sure. This is most likely the case for numerous chemicals used in industry that pose potential risks of contamination.

Update: Fox News is reporting today that as a result of the spill, at least 4 people have been hospitalized and hundreds more have reported symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, and skin irritation.

Amiodarone Toxicity: In a short post at LearnTheHeart, Steven Lome reminds us that amiodarone can cause pulmonary toxicity, hypo- or hyperthyroidism, and blue man syndrome (argyria). In another post, LearnTheHeart suggests a mnemonic for the side effects of amiodarone:

BITCH: Bradycardia, Interstitial lung disease, Thyroid (hyper- and hypo-). Corneal/Cutaneous, Hepatic or Hypotension (IV)
Organophosphate poisoning in Japan: Bloomberg News reported that almost 900 people have been sickened in Japan after eating packaged frozen croquettes that contained over 2.5 million times the permitted concentration of malathion. (Hat Tip: @ToxTalk)

When radium was used to treat appendicitis: The PBS American Experience — in conjunction with the recent airing of their superb show “The Poisoner’s Handbook” — has a fascinating gallery of common household products that contained poisons such as hydrogen cyanide, chloroform, lead, and radium. A must-see. (H/T, again, to @ToxTalk)


Dolphins get stoned on fugu (or do they?): A new BBC documentary on dolphins was reported to capture the sea mammals chewing gently on puffer fish, and then appearing to be in a trance as they became mesmerized by their own reflections on the surface of the sea. Reportedly, after taking a small dose, the individual dolphin doesn’t bogart the fish, but pass it around to fellow podsters. however, Christie Wilcox, in her Discover blog appropriately titled “Science Sushi,” points out that the puffer fish’s tetrodotoxin does not cross the blood-brain barrier or cause psychotropic effects. I’m with Wilcox — in this short clip, it looks more that the dolphins are using the puffer fish to play catch,not get high:

In any case, David Brooks would not approve.

Hyperbaric Oxygen and Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: In an excellent postLife in the Fast Lane dissects the two major studies of the role of hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) in treating carbon monoxide poisoning: Schienkestel at al (a positive study often touted by proponents of HBO therapy), and Weaver et al. (a negative study often referenced by opponents of HBO therapy). The post is especially good in listing the criticisms and limitations of each study. The bottom line:

The indications for, and effectiveness of, hyperbaric oxygen for carbon monoxide poisoning are controversial  . . . severe CO poisoning patients are those generally considered most likely to benefit from hyperbaric oxygen therapy, but this needs to balanced by the hazards and logistical difficulties of transferring critically ill patients to a hyperbaric chamber

As we noted in our last run-down of “Tox on the Web”, there was also another recent valuable discussion of carbon monoxide and HBO at Academic Life in Emergency Medicine. To read that post, click here.

Podcast of the Week: ToxTalk, the podcast produced by the UMass Division of Toxicology, has posted a very interesting and important conference covering toxicology issues in potential child abuse cases. A joint conference involving the tox division as well as staff from the Aubin Child Protection Center at Rhode Island Hospital, the discussion covers topics such as interpreting lab results in these cases, testing breast milk, and advising drug-using mothers about breast feeding. Important issues that often don’t get sufficient attention. Highly recommended.




  1. milkshake Says:

    MCHM is not actually a detergent, like dishwashing liquid or laundry powder – but it is a surfactant. It does not form micelles in water (which would allow water-insoluble stuff to stay in water) but instead it coats greasy surfaces (like coal dust and – unfortunately – plastic pipes in the water system) and as it can be frothed up with air and is poorly soluble in water, it can be used for froth flotation – separating greasy components like coal dust, from non-greasy component (rock tailings), by making tiny air bubbles to stick to it and bring it to the top of the sludge where it can be skimmed off.

  2. Leon Says:


    Thank you for the clarification.