It wasn’t that long ago on a cold January night when a chemical spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River and contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 residents.

There is now a movement to unravel the fundamental chemical and health properties of the chemical that contaminated the drinking water for the residents of West Virginia.

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The researcher team from Virginia Tech will work to understand the properties of a chemical mixture called crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), said study leader Andrea Dietrich, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. A $50,000 National Science Foundation Rapid Research grant is helping to fund the study.

The research team is determining the long-term fate of the chemicals in the drinking water distribution system and the environment.

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This industrial chemical mixture mainly sees use during the separation and cleaning of coal products. On January 9, more than 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol leaked into Charleston’s water supply from a Freedom Industries storage tank. The drinking water of more than 300,000 West Virginians ended up contaminated.

Water restrictions began 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 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 end up used to estimate human exposure through drinking water and indoor air pollution.

Other parameters will evaluate if MCHM interacts with plastic pipe and epoxy liners in water tanks. This research will help determine long-term remediation measures for the water distribution system.

Graduate students in Dietrich’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Techniques for Environmental Analysis class developed analytical chemical techniques that isolated the six major components in the crude mixture and identified their chemical structures.

After identifying the chemicals, they scoured government and industrial databases and realized what little they know about the properties of the compounds. This forced them to master modeling techniques to estimate toxicity and interaction with drinking water pipes and plumbing.

“This is one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century. In instances such as this, where the situation is still developing and public health is involved, timing is everything,” said William Cooper, a program director in NSF’s division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental and Transport Systems.

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