Four Months After Massive West Virginia Spill, EPA To Test Safety Of Inhaling Chemical Fumes

In this Jan. 13, 2014, photo, Al Jones of the West Virginia department of General Services tests the water in the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/STEVE HELBER
In this Jan. 13, 2014, photo, Al Jones of the West Virginia department of General Services tests the water in the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/STEVE HELBER

Nearly four months after a coal-cleaning chemical mixture spilled into the Elk River and contaminated the water supply for 300,000 West Virginia residents, the Environmental Protection Agency will test the chemical in air and set a corresponding safety limit for breathing the fumes. The decision marks the first time officials will take into account potential impacts beyond ingesting the chemicals and comes after the EPA asked on two previous occasions about setting a standard for inhalation, the Charleston Daily Mail reported.

While the new standard could inform future decisions, it will offer little comfort to the thousands of West Virginians already exposed to the chemical vapors. “I’m at a loss as to what the utility is to the 300,000 people from this particular test,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, told the Daily Mail.

And with the EPA sampling to occur in “the next few months,” Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette points out that the standard and new air sampling method may not even be ready in time to inform the impending clean-up of the spill site and dismantling of the tanks that held the chemical mixture. This is of particular concern considering West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection “officials and investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board have cautioned that the demolition of MCHM storage tanks at the Freedom site could prompt the release of more of the chemical into the air and bring back the licorice-like odors residents became familiar with after the leak.”

Very little is known about crude MCHM and its potential effect on humans and the environment — a key problem that hamstrung both the immediate response to the spill and the analyses that have occurred over the past several months. While approximately 10,000 gallons of the chemical mixture are estimated to have spilled into the Elk River, just upstream from a major water intake facility, residents reportedly began smelling the licorice-like odor characteristic of crude MCHM several weeks before the spill was reported.

After residents were told not to use their water for anything other than flushing the toilet, officials scrambled to set a safety limit for the amount of crude MCHM detected in the water supply and discovered an alarming dearth of scientific studies to back up such a threshold. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told local health officials that a level below 1 part per million was considered safe, the scientific foundation for which was repeatedly called into question. The weeks that followed brought more chaos and fewer answers as the amount of chemicals spilled was raised repeatedly, additional chemicals were reported and residents continued to show up at area hospitals with symptoms consistent with exposure to MCHM.

In addition to drawing from a study that only tested MCHM on animals, not humans, the 1 ppm safety limit set by the CDC did not take into account other forms of exposure, such as inhalation — this despite the fact that officials with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services told NBC affiliate WSAZ in the immediate wake of the spill that symptoms of exposure include “severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.”

A joint report issued by both the West Virginia and federal Departments of Health last month found that the symptoms reported by residents in the wake of the spill “are consistent with known health effects of MCHM.” However, the lack of scientific data regarding the impact of MCHM on humans prevented the authors from making conclusive statements. “These data can not ‘prove’ that MCHM caused the reported symptoms; however, these data are consistent with what is known about MCHM from animal studies,” the report said.

The troubling lack of information regarding the potential effects of drinking, inhaling or touching the chemicals have left many West Virginians feeling like little more than test subjects. “The scariest part is that we really just don’t know what’s going to happen,” 21 year-old Charleston resident Kellie Raines told ThinkProgress in February. “All of us are using the water now and we’re okay now but in 30 years — I’m young, I don’t want to in 30 years realize that I have cancer because of this water.”