What’s in the water you and your pets drink? Although we would like to think that the liquids and foods that enter our and our pets’ mouths are clean and safe, there is a chance this may not always be the case.


We certainly know quite well the potential for toxins in pet foods and treats, as evidenced by the melamine pet food crisis in 2007 and the ongoing concern regarding chicken jerky treats manufactured in China (see Are You Poisoning Your Companion Animal by Feeding 'Feed-Grade' Foods? and More Pet Jerky Recalls – Toxic Antibiotic Residues Found).


Well, there's a new concern on the forefront after a major chemical spill in West Virginia, with the potential to harm both people and pets, occurred on January 9, 2014. The chemical is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) and 10,000 gallons reportedly leaked from a Freedom Industries-owned 48,000-gallon storage tank along West Virginia’s Elk River.


According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, MCHM is used in the coal washing and preparation process ("froth flotation process”) to reduce ash. A second chemical, propylene glycol phenol ether (PPH), which is used as a thinner for MCHM, also leaked in a smaller quantity.


At the onset of the chemical spill, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin ordered  residents in affected areas to stop using tap water. This ban reportedly lasted for as little as four days in some communities and up to ten days in others.


On January 15, 2014, the Centers for Disease Control issued a warning that “pregnant women drink bottled water until there are no longer detectable levels of MCHM in the water distribution system. However, the CDC re-affirmed previous advice that it does not anticipate any adverse health effects from levels less than 1 ppm.”


MCHM has a strong, licorice-like odor which creates a taste and smell aversion. People and pets can be exposed to MCHM through ingestion (eating/drinking), inhalation (breathing), or contact with the skin, eyes, or other mucous membranes.


Clinical signs of MCHM exposure include (but are not limited to):


  • Nausea
  • Emesis (vomiting)
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhea
  • Dermatitis (red/inflamed skin)
  • Pruritis (itching)


A friend and author Patti Lawson (The Dog Diet, A Memoir) lives in West Virginia and had the unfortunate circumstance of experiencing the adverse effects of this toxic spill on a first-hand basis. Here’s her recount of the noxious turn of events.


I learned of it (the MCHM spill) while at work on Thursday, January 9, 2014. Sadie (Laswon’s dog) was at her daycare and they immediately quit giving the dogs water from the tap and emptied their bowls. Bottled water as well as bulk water became available on Friday, but Thursday night was a melee at all the stores with people vying for the limited cases of bottled water. I stopped and got water on the way home. I emptied Sadie’s bowl and Henry’s water dish as well. Henry is my cockatiel.


The first change was that night when it came time to brush teeth “toofens” before bed. I started to put Sadie’s toothbrush under the faucet and thought, 'oh no … I can’t do this.' So I brought up bottled water and we both started that night using it for brushing teeth and drinking as well. Henry likes to peck at an ice cube and I got one out of the ice maker and started to his cage realizing I couldn’t give it to him. I thought, 'He’s so little he could die.' So he didn’t get any ice that night.


I emptied out the ice in the ice maker and shut it off. When I went to fill Sadie’s bedroom water bowl that night it was with bottled water.  The challenge then began to get water and keep it on supply.


The dog daycare had such a burden keeping water on hand. They quit giving dogs baths as well. Sadie looks at her half full bowl of water and looks at me. She’s used to me filling it completely full but I only put one bottle in at a time to keep it fresh. No one knows what this will do to people or animals.


Although the levels of MCHM are currently reported to be below a safe threshold, many residents are concerned about the ongoing potential for toxicity. In early March 2014, Tomblin ended the state of emergency and the supplies of free, clean water were discontinued. People have to either go back to using tap water or pay for their own supply of bottled water.


This turn of events should make us scrutinize the safety of our public water supply and consider options besides those which come out of the tap for regular consumption and use by people and pets. Learn more about the safety of our drinking water via the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water and Health: What Your Need to Know!


Dr. Patrick Mahaney


Image: Voyagerix / Shutterstock