Following the massive chemical spill into West Virginia’s Elk River that left some 300,000 people without water for days, a state-commissioned study on the tap water there is underway. The results, based on samples taken from 10 area homes will be released in about one-to-three weeks, according to researchers leading the study.
The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, also known as Crude MCHM, was discovered on January 9th to be leaking from a Freedom Industries storage tank into the Elk River, contaminating the Charleston, WV water supply. The chemical gives off a licorice aroma, which alerted residents to the issue. After about one and a-half weeks, the water ban was lifted and officials indicated that the Crude MCHM was detected at very low levels, according to CNN. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin requested the state health bureau set up testing following growing questions and resident and business unease.
The project also involves pulling together a panel that will also make a determination—based on the scarcity of information available—about how much Crude MCHM may remain in the water while also remaining safe for consumption, said Andre Whelton, University of South Alabama professor and one of the project’s leaders, according to CNN. The team will be looking at available data as new studies will not be completed in the short project window. The team will, however, recommend ways in which additional data may be collected, said Jeffrey Rosen of Corona Environmental Consulting, another of the project’s leaders
“Our project will clarify at what levels (the chemical) should be ingested at,” though there’s no timetable yet for those findings, Whelton told reporters at a news conference, CNN indicated. The effort is entitled the “West Virginia Assessment Project.” According to Whelton, some 600 samples were sent to laboratories in three states.
Although the water ban has been lifted, some residents continue to detect the licorice aroma and some have reported adverse health reactions after using their tap water. There is very minimal available information on Crude MCHM, which is a coal ash cleaner and a foaming agent.
An expert panel will be convened to attempt to determine how much Crude MCHM may be safely consumed and that “will be finalized in the coming weeks,” Rosen said, according to CNN. In official guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the agency never uses the word “safe” to describe any level of the chemical. Instead, the CDC indicates that based on animal studies, Crude MCHM levels were calculated at levels in which “a person could likely ingest without resulting in adverse health effects.” Rosen described the guidance as not being ideal, but was justified, based on the limited data available to the CDC. The new panel will attempt to obtain data that was unavailable to the CDC at the time, said Rosen, who also warned that the data pool will still not be “ideal.”
Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County health departments recently told CNN that “the official agencies are saying (the water is) OK to drink,” but “they’re not saying it’s safe to drink…. That’s the word. People are looking for that word (safe).”
Meanwhile, the timing of two waves of patients seeking treatment from physicians and at least 10 hospital emergency rooms seems to fall in line with the timing of the imposition and release of the water ban. Symptoms including rashes, nausea, vomiting, and coughing, Gupta said, were seen in the three days following reporting of the spill and lulled until a few days after the ban was lifted. Gupta acknowledged his findings were “nonscientific,” but noted that “Those two peaks are undeniable…. Perhaps there is something going on here.” He has requested a long-term study that should be conducted “in a manner able to capture any long-term impact,” according to CNN.