More than a month has passed since Freedom Industries Inc. reported a disastrous chemical spill into West Virginia’s Elk River on January 9, prompting a state of emergency and restricting 300,000 people from drinking or using their own tap water.
West Virginians, understandably concerned about a potential public health crisis, have pressed hard for answers. In return, they’ve faced a series of confusing statements and contradictions from state and federal officials. The story is moving so quickly, it can be tough to keep up and parse out what we actually know. Here’s an update of where we are now:
Officials are still sending mixed messages regarding water safety.
The Center for Disease Control and local health departments, along with West Virginia American Water, all maintain that the water is safe to use. They’ve based their assessment on a controversial “screening level” of less than 1 part per million (ppm) of MCMH for safe water usage (more on this later). Samples from treatment plants have met that criterion, though the state still hasn’t conducted planned tests on home plumbing systems.
Recent statements from other officials weren’t so definitive. State Health Officer Dr. Leticia Tierney told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Monday, “Everybody has a different definition of safe.” In that same hearing, US Chemical Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said the dearth of knowledge about crude MCHM and PPH means we can’t say outright whether the water is safe.
After the state cleared some residents to use their tap water, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) posted a notice based on CDC recommendations advising pregnant women to drink bottled water instead. The CDC recently approved water usage for all West Virginians, including pregnant women, although the advisory remains posted on the DHHR website.
We still know very little about MCHM.
The Charleston Gazette-Mail has a stunning report about how government scientists rushed to determine the widely cited standard of 1 ppm of MCHM. In short, the CDC determined a chemical safety standard for 300,000 West Virginians the night of the spill’s discovery, based on a chemical manufacturer’s 1994 tests on lab rats. The CDC has since changed its tune, now citing an earlier study by the same company with higher standards. But some experts have criticized both studies—neither peer-reviewed nor publically available—as inadequate for making human health conclusions that affect so many people.
We’ve learned very little since then, and we still don’t know the long-term human health effects of MCHM exposure.
At least five schools have dismissed students over chemical odors.
At least five schools sent students home last week after administrators detected the “licorice-like” odor associated with MCHM on school grounds. One teacher fainted and was sent to the hospital because of the odor. There were also complaints of lightheadedness, burning eyes and burning noses, all symptoms related to MCHM exposure.