Scientist's claims of formaldehyde in water derided by W.Va. officials

Dueling opinions reveal confusion facing residents who want safe water in the aftermath of 10,000 gallon chemical spill

Local residents leave the Charleston Fire Department Station One where police officers and fire fighters distributed water on Jan. 11.
Ty Wright/Washington Post/Getty Images

State officials and a water company are disputing a scientist's claim that West Virginia residents were likely breathing in traces of formaldehyde while showering after the recent chemical spill, saying the chemical that tainted the water supply only produces the carcinogen at extremely high temperatures.

The dispute between the scientist and the officials underscored the steady stream of conflicting information that weary West Virginians have had to digest since the Jan. 9 spill.

The crude MCHM that spilled into the water supply ultimately can break down into formaldehyde, West Virginia Environmental Quality Board vice-chairman Scott Simonton told a state legislative panel Wednesday. Simonton, who is also an environmental scientist at Marshall University, said the formaldehyde showed up in three water samples at a downtown Charleston restaurant as part of testing funded by a law firm representing businesses that lost money during the spill.

State Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Tierney — the state's top health officer — called Simonton's presentation "totally unfounded."

She said Simonton isn't a part of the interagency team that has been testing water samples. Tierney said her agency is unaware of how Simonton's study was done, including sampling procedures, protocol and methodology.

"His opinion is personal," Tierney said.

Colorado-based industrial chemicals expert Bob Johnson told Al Jazeera “formaldehyde is a stable material and completely miscible ... It dissolves completely in water."

“I don’t know how it could possibly affect individuals taking a shower or bath,” added Johnson, who spent 35 years at Imperial Chemicals Industries and its subsidiaries.  

Simonton, who holds a Ph.D. in engineering, was appointed by the governor to the board that hears appeals on state water permitting and enforcement decisions. He was first appointed for his first five-year term more than a decade ago by then-Gov. Bob Wise.

Tierney said experts who have been assisting the state said the only way for formaldehyde to come from MCHM is if it were combusted at 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

The water company involved in the chemical spill, West Virginia American Water, called Simonton's opinion "misleading and irresponsible."

University of Washington public health dean Dr. Howard Frumkin, an environmental health specialist, suggested that officials use caution when interpreting the results of the water tests that Simonton cited.

"There's lot of possibilities there," he said, including the chance that any formaldehyde showing up in tests isn't a result of the chemical spill.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the chemical can make people who breathe a lot of it feel sick, and it appears to increase cancer risks if inhaled repeatedly.

Initial testing at Vandalia Grille in Charleston showed traces of the chemical in the water — twice at 32 parts per billion and once at 33 parts per billion, Simonton said. The testing took place Jan. 13, the first day some downtown Charleston businesses were able to flush their systems.

Other testing showed no traces of formaldehyde, but samples are still being processed. The testing is funded by Charleston law firm Thompson Barney LLC. The firm is representing businesses suing Freedom Industries for lost profits during the water-use ban.

"I can guarantee that citizens in this valley are, at least in some instances, breathing formaldehyde," said Simonton.

He said he believes crude MCHM is breaking down into formaldehyde in showers or the water system.

West Virginia Senate Majority Leader John Unger heads the water panel that brought in Simonton to testify. He said he takes the scientist's testimony "very seriously" and considers him credible. Unger will invite Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's administration to address the committee about why they think Simonton is wrong.

A spokeswoman for Freedom Industries did not return a phone call for comment.

Freedom Industries has estimated 10,000 gallons of chemicals leaked from its tank

According to the CDC, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. It is colorless, strong-smelling gas used to make building materials and household products, including walls, cabinets, and furniture.

Breathing formaldehyde in large quantities can cause sore throats, coughing, itchy eyes and nosebleeds. Symptoms also are common with other upper respiratory illnesses, such as colds, the flu and seasonal allergies. People with short-term exposure are less likely to have symptoms.

According to the CDC, the risk of health problems is low when formaldehyde levels are of 10 parts per billion. The risk is "medium" at 100 parts per billion, particularly among the elderly, young children and for those with health conditions such as asthma.

Studies showed that people repeatedly exposed to airborne formaldehyde in the workplace produced more cases of nose and throat cancer than expected, according to the CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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