After the disastrous chemical spill in Elk River leading to a ban on tap water for hundreds of thousands West Virginias, residents are now being told that they could be breathing in formaldehyde while showering, despite officials’ claims that the water is now safe for everyone except pregnant women. Environmental attorney William J. Dubanevich, of the national law firm of Parker Waichman LLP, was present at the meeting says that the issue was major one at yesterday’s Town Hall forum in Clay Center.
Formaldehyde is a probable carcinogen that has caused cancer in animals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The chemical is colorless with a strong odor. People who are exposed to formaldehyde gas may suffer from burning in the eyes and throat, nausea, difficulty breathing and may also trigger allergic reactions.
Scott Simonton, an environmental scientist at Marshall University and member of West Virginia’s Environmental Quality Board told expert panelists at the forum yesterday that he found traces of formaldehyde at a water sample taken near a popular restaurant in downtown Charleston. “I can guarantee you that citizens in this valley are, at least in some instances, breathing formaldehyde,” Simonton said. He called the findings “really frightening” and said that he and his family are not touching the water.
The issue of trust was also discussed at the meeting. Residents and experts are doubtful at the way events have played out. In many lawsuits, including two filed by Parker Waichman LLP, it is alleged that Freedom and West Virginia-American Water Company failed to properly handle the situation, waiting hours before warning the public or closing the intake from the Elk River. Then, it was discovered the Freedom failed to disclose a second chemical, PPH.
“I don’t need anyone to tell me to trust them, when I can see and smell something is wrong,” said Erin Brockovich, national environmental activist and panelist.
Not much is known about the long-term effects of PPH or MCHM, the main chemical that was first found to contaminate the water. Dr. Rahul Gupta, a panelist and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, highlighted this concern. “We are the first human beings this chemical has ever been experimented on,” he said. “We are the laboratory population in every way.” Dr. Gupta says that a surveillance program is desperately needed to see what adverse effects are associated with the spill.
In response to one woman who told the panel that she suffered from rashes on her hand after using the water, Gupta said that many others have had the same experience. He said that there have been many reports of rashes and diarrhea since the spill.