A West Virginia state official told a legislative panel on Wednesday that he “can guarantee” residents are breathing in formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, nearly three weeks after a massive chemical spill contaminated the water supply for more than 300,000 residents.
Scott Simonton, a Marshall University environmental scientist and member of the state Environmental Quality Board, told the panel that he had found formaldehyde in local water samples and was alarmed by the lack of information regarding the lingering impacts of the spill on public health, the Charleston Gazette reported.
“It’s frightening, it really is frightening,” Simonton said. “What we know scares us, and we know there’s a lot more we don’t know.”
On January 9, Freedom Industries reported a leak of crude MCHM, a mixture of chemicals used in the coal production process, from its storage facility on the Elk River and into the water supply for 16 percent of the state’s population. Simonton said the crude MCHM can be broken down into formaldehyde, which causes cancer, and inhaled while people are showering.
Very little is known about crude MCHM and just how toxic it may be to humans. Initially, state authorities maintained that levels of the chemicals below 1 part per million were considered safe for people, based on consultations with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC’s recommendation, however, was derived from a study conducted by Eastman Chemical company, which only tested the mixture’s main ingredient and contained no human toxicity data.
Two days after the state began lifting the ‘do not use’ water ban, the CDC issued guidance advising pregnant women not to drink the water until there were no detectable levels of crude MCHM.
Simonton also expressed concern about the 1 ppm threshold and the studies used to derive it, telling the panel that “in one study it couldn’t even be determined what the cause of death was for the rats because there were so many different things happening to them.”
Shortly after admitting another largely unknown chemical, PPH, had also spilled into the water, Freedom Industries said on Monday that 10,000 gallons of chemicals had spilled, the second time the estimate has been increased.