West Virginia water ban lifted even as residents getting sick

Residents in the areas affected by chemical contamination can drink the water, but many say they are becoming ill

Al Jones of the West Virginia Department of General Services tests the water as he flushes the faucet and opens a rest room on the first floor of the State Capitol in Charleston, Va.
Steve Helber/AP

West Virginia authorities completely lifted a 10-day-old ban on the use of tap water over the weekend that was imposed after a chemical spill contaminated drinking water. The final 2 percent of the 300,000 customers affected by the spill are cleared to drink and wash from their tap, said West Virginia American Water spokeswoman Laura Jordan. Despite the lifting of the ban, dozens of people continue to seek medical attention at hospitals around Charleston for contamination-related illnesses and rashes.

Out of an "abundance of caution," though, the water utility advised pregnant women to consider an alternative drinking water source "until the chemical is non-detectable in the water distribution system."

Crews have been flushing out the water system around the capital city of Charleston since Jan. 9, when a chemical used to process coal leaked from a massive storage container owned by Freedom Industries into the Elk River, the main water source in the region.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency and local officials issued a do-not-use advisory until testing showed levels below the 1 part per million level safety standard set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An investigation into the spill is under way and water sampling is ongoing, Jordan said.

"This is a good first step," she said.

But as water in more areas was deemed safe to drink, more and more people seemed to be entering hospitals in the counties affected by the spill.

More than 400 people have been treated in 10 hospitals since Jan. 9. At least 100 of those entered hospitals within the past two days.

About 1,600 people have also called poison control to complain about symptoms, the most common of which appear to be red, itchy skin and upset stomachs.

Gov. Tombin's office took pains to calm the anxiety many have been feeling about using the water. In a conference call on Friday, the state's Commissioner for the Bureau of Public Health, Dr. Letitia Tierney said the water was safe, and blamed any perceived illnesses on other factors.

"Some people are getting (flu) viruses, as many people do every winter," she said. "In addition, a lot of people are getting very anxious. Anxiety is a real diagnosis and it can be really hard on people, and its okay to be seen by a health professional to ensure you're okay."

Still, some experts are cautioning people to stay away from the water.

"I would certainly be waiting until I couldn't smell it anymore, certainly to be drinking it," said Richard Denison, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund who has followed the spill closely. "I don't blame people at all for raising questions and wondering whether they can trust what's being told to them."

Little is known about the chemical — MCHM — that polluted the water.

The CDC relied on two studies of the chemical's effect on animals to establish the safe standard of 1 part per million, but data from those studies is not publicly available.

"This is a dynamic and moving event. There are many things happening. And we are trying to do our best," Dr. Vikas Kapil of the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry told reporters in a conference call Thursday. "There are uncertainties. There is little known about this material."

MCHM is one of tens of thousands of chemicals exempt from testing under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act because they were already in use when the law was approved in 1976.

A fact sheet of available data on the chemical says there is no specific information about its toxic effects on humans. According to the document and the CDC, it is unknown whether exposure to MCHM can cause cancer or affect reproductive systems.

Meanwhile, Freedom Industries, the chemical company responsible for the leak, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Friday, after vendors demanded that it pay in cash, straining its finances. The filing would also help protect the company's assets, shielding it from lawsuits while allowing it to remain in business.

The Freedom Industries site had not been inspected since 1991.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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