Feds: WV Water Safe; Residents Not Sure

Monday, February 10, 2014 @ 12:02 PM gHale

West Virginians can use tap water however they choose after last month’s Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk River contaminated the water for days.

The public, however, remains skeptical.

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The January 9 spill of a coal-cleaning chemical at Freedom Industries in Charleston spurred a water-use ban for 300,000 people for up to 10 days. After officials cleared thousands to use water again, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials advised pregnant women to consider a different water source.

Over 7,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol leaked into Charleston’s water supply from a Freedom Industries storage tank. Freedom Industries later told regulators that in addition to the methanol compound that escaped from a ruptured tank, a second chemical, a mix of polyglycol ethers, known as PPH, was part of the leak.

PPH does not pose any new health hazard for the people of Charleston, the CDC said. But the state environmental agency said failing to accurately report the makeup of the leak is a violation of state law.

Even this past Wednesday the CDC reaffirmed its stance on the water’s safety, even for pregnant women.

“You can drink it. You can bathe in it,” said Dr. Tanja Popovic, acting director of the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “You can use it how you like.”

Popovic said the CDC’s original suggestion meant only to empower pregnant women to make their own health decisions.

“They may not want to eat certain food,” Popovic said. “They may not want to fly. It doesn’t mean that flying isn’t safe.”

Still, many restaurants refuse to cook with it. And some local doctors are telling certain patients, like children under 3 and people with compromised immune systems, not to drink it, said Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for Kanawha and Putnam counties.

And Wednesday, two schools closed early after the licorice odor indicative of the spilled chemical wafted through several classrooms and a cafeteria. Some students started feeling light-headed, and had itchy eyes and noses. A teacher who fainted and another student went to the hospital, said state schools Superintendent James Phares.

Trying to provide some clarity, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he is evaluating options to send teams into some people’s homes to check their water. He previously said his team didn’t plan to test in homes.

“We all have the same question — is my water safe?” Tomblin said at a news conference. “This question is justifiable and can’t be ignored.”

After the spill, state and federal agencies scrambled to identify how much of the material that leaked could be safely in the water supply.

Officials have based testing at the water treatment plant, fire hydrants, in schools and various other spots across the affected region.

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