Although health officials have assured residents of Charleston, West Virginia, that the tap water there is safe, residents are not drinking water that comes from a supply that was contaminated following a massive chemical spill on January 9th.
The spill, which originated from a leaking Freedom Industries storage tank that contained at least two toxic chemicals, dumped 10,000 gallons of chemicals into the Elk River. This led to a water ban that lasted for days and left at least 300,000 people, as well as all area businesses, with no water, except for toilet flushing. In some cases, people were left without water for more than a week, according to CNN.
The water ban has been lifted and residents have been told the water is safe, but people who live and work in the area disagree. One resident told CNN that when he runs the hot water, “within a couple of minutes, I’ll have a headache from the steam.” Other residents have photographed rashes that show up after washing their faces or bathing. According to CNN, just about 1 percent of 200 people who attended town hall meetings late last month said they were dinking the water. A larger survey of residents indicated just 4 percent are drinking tap water.
A coal cleanser and foaming agent, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, also known as Crude MCHM, and was one of the chemicals involved in the contamination of Charleston’s water supply. The chemical smells like licorice, which was what initially alerted residents to the contamination. Health effects of Crude MCHM, which is used to wash coal and reduce ash, is relatively unknown. A second chemical was later acknowledged by Freedom Industries, PPH, which is a polyglycol ether mix, CNN reported.
Officials maintain that the chemical was found at very low levels; however, not everyone agrees. And there is also the concern that there is relatively no information on the effects of either chemical at any level.
The CDC also issued the following statement on February 5th: “Due to limited availability of data, and out of an abundance of caution, pregnant women may wish to consider an alternative drinking water source until the chemical is at non-detectable levels in the water distribution system.”
In response to resident outcry, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin just asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct additional studies on the spill’s health effects, CNN reported. “It is critical this study is funded and that work begins immediately,” Tomblin wrote to CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.
“The official agencies are saying (the water is) OK to drink,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County health departments, according to CNN. “They’re not saying it’s safe to drink. That’s the word. People are looking for that word.” In original CDC guidance, the CDC did not use the word “safe,” and simply said that, based on animal studies, the chemical’s levels were calculated at levels in which “a person could likely ingest without resulting in adverse health effects.” Meanwhile, “two waves” of hundreds of patients have visited physicians and 10 hospital emergency rooms over the impacted nine-county area over rash, nausea, vomiting, and cough, Gupta said, wrote CNN.
In the early days following reporting of the spill, about 250 patients sought medical assistance, said Gupta. Following the water ban, there was a break. The second peak occurred, involving around the same number of people, after January 13th when the advisory was lifted. Gupta says that while his findings are “non-scientific” and anecdotal, there is a need for additional research. “Those two peaks are undeniable” research is needed “in a manner able to capture any long-term impact,” he added. Gupta says that the smell of licorice is still evident in some areas, including in his home.
Rafael Moure-Eraso, Chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, recently told state legislators, “These chemicals are created in the industry to be reactive and to do chemical work. Even in small quantities, they affect human beings, they have the potential to affect human beings and we should be worried about it…. Definitely, they should not be in drinking water period, at any level,” ThinkProgress previously reported.
According to CNN, a federal grand jury is investigating the Freedom Industries spill.