CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA — On Monday afternoon, Teresa Smoot finally decided to go to the emergency room.
Four days earlier she had been cleaning her kitchen, using water from the faucet. She noticed her hands becoming red on Friday. By Sunday, she had a blister — about a half-inch long on her knuckle.
“There’s just tightness, redness,” she said, before a nurse strapped a patient bracelet to her wrist.
According to West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources, 10 hospitals in West Virginia have so far treated 332 cases like Smoot’s after a chemical spill on Thursday contaminated the potable water for 16 percent of the state’s population, with 14 admitted to hospitals. Like so many others, Smoot was exposed to the chemical before she knew about a regional ban on water use.
But even though the water bans have been lifted in many of the affected parts of West Virginia, people complaining of symptoms from the spill continue to pour into emergency rooms. Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, told the Charleston Daily Mail that 101 patients claiming water-related symptoms visited Charleston-area emergency rooms in 36 hours between Monday night and 7 a.m. Wednesday morning, with 46 of the visits occurring between 7 p.m. Tuesday night and 7 a.m. Wednesday morning. Gupta said many of the patients said they used water after the ban was lifted in their area.
So far, no diagnoses have been made linking those patients’ symptoms to water exposure.
“As far as the data and recommendations we have from West Virginia American Water, the water is safe to use, Gupta said. But he went on, “We’re not saying it’s safe. West Virginia American Water is saying it’s safe. We are taking their word for it.”
But not much is actually known about the licorice-smelling chemical, called crude MCHM, which is used to wash coal. Up to 7,500 gallons of it spilled into the Elk River after leaking from a tank operated by Freedom Industries, and since it’s soluble, much of it dissolved into the water. Repeated or prolonged exposure to the chemical has been found to “cause headaches, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, and can also cause a skin rash.”
But comprehensive health effects — what happens if the diluted chemical is ingested, or how exposure to the chemical could affect people in the long term — are largely a mystery, leaving residents there to have to figure out their symptoms for themselves.
Rich McGervey, a Charleston-based attorney, was also jarred by the spill. Like Smoot, McGervey was exposed to the MCHM-tainted water on Thursday morning, after the chemical started leaking but before it had been officially reported. First, in the morning, he ate a McDonald’s biscuit. Later, he took a shower.
After picking his five-year-old daughter up from school, they went to the mall, where they both ordered fountain drinks. She spilled hers; he didn’t. He ordered a refill.
“And I started to feel a bit dizzy,” he said. “It was a strange feeling, I had never had it before. Just kind of fleeting, but disturbing.”
When he noticed his daughter’s favorite frozen yogurt place was closed, McGervey began to hear rumors of the spill. He began doing some internet investigating, eventually finding that at 6 p.m., Gov. Tomblin had issued an overarching ban on water in his area. No drinking, no cooking, no washing. Only flushing.
That worried McGervey. On Wednesday night, his daughter had complained that her whole body was itching and McGervey himself started feeling unwell.
“I got nauseous that evening and was kind of nauseous the next day,” McGervey said on Monday. “Really my nausea kind of continues.”
But health effects from the spill have been varied. Some have warranted hospital admissions. But some have been trivial, and some nonexistent. And unlike those who are worried about using water after the ban’s end, some haven’t stopped using it since Thursday.
CREDIT: Katie Valentine
While Charleston Fire Department Captain Ken Tyree Jr. said he had not used the water since the ban, three others in his office, including a local police officer, said they had been using the water for showering since the spill was announced and haven’t experienced any adverse effects.
And Kellie Raines, a 21-year-old Charleston resident who works at WesBanco, also said she was feeling fine.
“I’m not as worried as I should be,” she said. “I washed my hands all day and took a shower [Thursday] morning.”
Over at Bluegrass Kitchen, one of the restaurants that was allowed to open during the water ban, a woman sitting at the counter said she and her family had not used the water. But lack of showering, she said, had particularly unfortunate health effects for her 17-year old son.
“He had just finally gotten over his acne,” the woman, who asked not to be named for fear of embarrassing her son, said. “But the days of not showering brought it back. That’s pretty disastrous.”
Something In The Water
There is no data on crude MCHM’s carcinogenic effects, ability to cause DNA mutations and physical deformities, or its ability to interfere with human development, according to the chemical’s Material Safety Data Sheet.
“No specific information is available in our data base regarding the toxic effects of this material for humans,” the data sheet reads. “However, exposure to any chemical should be kept to a minimum.”
After the spill, the Centers for Disease Control determined that 1 part per million was a safe level for the chemical in water. According to local reports, the CDC has deferred questions about the chemical spill to West Virginia American Water or has not responded to questions about how the 1 ppm threshold was determined, but a Department of Health and Human Resources spokesman has said the 1 ppm threshold was based off of a 1990 paper written by Eastman, the maker of the chemical. The paper examined MCHM’s effect on rats and wasn’t published in publicly available journals. The paper was the basis for MCHM’s median lethal dose — or the dosage that, when given to a group of rats, will kill half of them — of 825 milligrams per kilogram of weight.
In order to translate that dosage into human terms, the spokesperson told the Charleston Gazette, the CDC “took this number and calculated the uncertainty factors. In this situation there were two. The first uncertainty factor was translating these results from rats to humans. The second uncertainty factor took into account sensitive populations. This includes the elderly, the sick, the immuno-compromised and children, amongst others.”
That math gave the researchers a basis of how much MCHM would kill a person, and from there, they extrapolated what concentration in water is safe for consumption and useage. But Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the CDC’s process was based on “shaky science.”
“None of this math adequately accounts for the concern that long-term exposure to chemicals may cause chronic health effects, not just the acute (short-term) toxicity,” Denison wrote in a blog post Monday. “Nor does the math account for how the chemical behaves in people — does it accumulate? Break down rapidly? Leave byproducts that are more or less toxic? Here again, the basic health data that could be used to answer such questions do not exist.”
The mystery of what exactly crude MCHM is has spurred some lawmakers to call for a updating the country’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was passed in 1976 and hasn’t been updated since. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Paul Tonko (D-NY) have called for a hearing on the chemical spill, to try to determine why more wasn’t known about MCHM and other chemicals used in the U.S.
“As we begin to consider ideas to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), it is critically important that we understand how the law allowed a potentially harmful chemical to remain virtually untested for nearly forty years,” the representatives write in a letter to the chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy. “Even if scientists and regulators now turn their attention to the risks posed by MCHM, we should not have to wait for a major contamination event to learn the most basic information about a toxic chemical in commerce.”
This lack of information has been frightening for West Virginia residents affected by the spill — so much so that some say they’re avoiding using the water even now that the ban is lifted.
“I don’t know that we’re going to go back to drinking tap water again or even cooking with tap water immediately after the do-not-use order is lifted,” said Mike Becher, an attorney in Charleston. “I still have concerns that there’s still not a lot known about this chemical.”
Keeley Steele, owner of Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston, said that though the restaurant was able to open conditionally on Sunday before the water bans began to be lifted, she thinks she’s going to be offering bottled water, instead of filtered tap water, to customers for a while.
“We don’t [usually] keep bottled water here at the restaurant, because of the wastefulness of it,” she said. “But I see us probably keeping bottled water on hand for customers for quite a long time.”