Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes: Reuters reports that up to 300,000 West Virginia residents have been told not to drink tap water after a chemical spill called its safety into question, and health officials said water in the affected area should only be used for flushing toilets and fighting fires. "We don't know that the water's not safe, but I can't say it is safe," says Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Co, The spill of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, or Crude MCHM, a chemical used in the coal industry, occurred on Thursday on the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia's capital upriver from the plant run by West Virginia American Water. The chemical, which smells like licorice, can cause headaches, eye and skin irritation, and difficulty breathing from prolonged exposures at high concentrations, according to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. Officials in West Virginia said they did not know how much of the chemical had leaked into the river or what its potential health impact might be. While there haven't been widespread sicknesses, the ordeal is already having a profound impact. Businesses — such as 15 McDonald's in the area, have shut down. Hospitals have had to take emergency measures to conserve water. And residents have been left scrambling, as evidenced by empty shelves and growing worries. The rush now is on to fully assess and address the problem, including the chemical leak that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin characterized as "unacceptable." It is unclear how long that might take. “We cannot provide a timeline at this point,” says McIntyre.