In the wake of last month’s chemical spill into the Elk River near Charleston, many West Virginians are still wary of the tap water, though health officials have told them the water is “acceptable” for all uses.
On January 9, Freedom Industries reported that the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) was leaking from a storage tank into the Elk River and had entered the water supply. Gov. Early Ray Tomblin announced near-total water restrictions for 300,000 West Virginians in nine counties. The ban was gradually lifted, but some areas were under restriction for more than a week, CNN reports. During the ban, residents and businesses were directed to use tap water for toilet flushing and fire fighting only. Hundreds sought treatment for rashes, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, and calls to poison control were up sharply.
Freedom Industries originally estimated that about 7,500 gallons of MCHM had spilled, but the total has been raised to 10,000 gallons. The company has acknowledged that a second chemical – PPH, a mix of polyglycol ethers – was also leaked. Both chemicals are used in coal processing and little is known about their effects on human health.
Earlier this month, CNN reports, it requested an independent water test, and the results show trace levels of MCHM in both river water and in tap water from two homes in Charleston. Amounts ranging from less than 0.5 parts per billion (ppb) to 1.6 ppb were detected, a range well below the 1 part per million (ppm) the CDC considers unlikely to be associated with any adverse health effects. But the CDC does not use the word “safe” in its official guidance about the water, and Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County health departments, said “safe” is the reassurance West Virginians seek: “People are looking for that word.”
The CDC says that based on animal studies, levels of the chemical were calculated at levels where “a person could likely ingest without resulting in adverse health effects,” according to CNN. But pregnant women have been advised not to drink tap water until MCHM is undetectable, and some doctors are concerned about possible effects on the developing brains of infants and children exposed to the chemicals.
Dr. Gupta said a recent survey shows that only 4 percent of area residents said they are drinking tap water. Many restaurants are using bottled water in their cooking and have posted signs to alert customers, CNN reports.