More than two days after West Virginia American Water began lifting the ban on water use that had impacted 300,000 West Virginians, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finally broke its silence and advised pregnant women not to drink the water.
Late Wednesday, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources issued a one-page advisory for pregnant women, based on guidance from the CDC, recommending “out of an abundance of caution” that “pregnant women drink bottled water until there are no longer detectable levels of MCHM in the water distribution system.”
Previously, officials had maintained that levels of the chemical, crude MCHM, below 1 part per million were considered safe. As of Thursday, officials had cleared the water for more than 200,000 West Virginians based on the 1 part per million threshold set by the CDC. As David Gutman and Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette reported, the latest warning to pregnant women comes after the CDC repeatedly refused the paper’s requests for information regarding how the 1 part per million figure was derived.
According to the CDC’s letter, “since making the initial [1 ppm] calculations, scientists have obtained additional animal studies about MCHM. These are being reviewed.”
Very little is known about the chemical, crude MCHM, and its potential effects on humans. Used in the coal production process, MCHM is one of 64,000 chemicals in use in the U.S. that were grandfathered in to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), meaning there are no requirements that anyone prove whether or not they are safe.
Emergency rooms saw an uptick in patients after the ‘do not use’ advisory was lifted. “What we are seeing when we talk to our partners in hospital systems are people with skin and eye irritation, rashes, nausea, upset stomach and diarrhea,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, told the Charleston Daily Mail. Those symptoms are consistent with crude MCHM exposure. However, 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.