W.Va. water now ‘safe,’ CDC says

After more than a month of hedging, federal health agency uses significant word to describe Charleston-area water

A municipal employee checks faucets in the state Capitol in Charleston on Jan. 13.
Steve Helber/AP

Federal health officials have used the word “safe” to describe West Virginia’s tap water for the first time since the area's water supply was contaminated Jan. 9 by a large spill of a coal-processing chemical. Earlier this month, those same authorities would only call the water “appropriate for use.”

“Based on what we know, if the water is at nondetectable levels for MCHM, it is safe to drink, bathe in and clean with, and this would include for pregnant women,” said Barbara Reynolds, spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), referring to methylcyclohexanemethanol, the compound that made up the bulk of the toxic spill. 

But the CDC's defining of the water as “safe” likely won’t quell fears for many around the state’s capital, Charleston, who still don’t trust what is flowing from their taps. A licorice odor, a telltale sign of MCHM that first alerted residents to the spill, still wafts from faucets for thousands across the state.

The water ban applied to hundreds of thousands in cities, towns and remote villages across nine counties in central West Virginia after the leak from a Freedom Industries chemical storage site along the Elk River.

“We also want to recognize that any faint MCHM-related smell could be off-putting and that proper flushing of water lines is important,” said Reynolds. “We continue to believe (there is) no adverse harm below 1 ppm (parts per million), and we said Feb. 5 that people could drink and use water.”

The Jan. 9 spill prompted a water ban that was fully lifted for 300,000 in the Charleston area on Jan. 19 after levels of the coal-processing chemical were measured at 1 ppm or below, a level the CDC determined to be safe.

‘Lab rats’

But even now, some residents are taking short showers and won’t dare drink from their taps. Wealthier residents are able to adapt to the crisis with greater ease, while finding clean water that doesn’t smell is more of a challenge for the poor, activists and residents say.

Free water distribution, provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its state counterpart, stopped weeks ago. West Virginia American Water, the company whose supplies were hit by the 10,000-gallon chemical spill, now operates bulk water-distribution sites, as do local charities.

Reynolds said the agency had little previous research to work with when determining how safe the water is. Studies conducted by the chemical’s manufacturer on rats showed they experienced liver and kidney problems after a month of ingesting large doses of MCHM.

Ben Stout, a professor of aquatic biology at West Virginia’s Wheeling Jesuit University, said experts can’t be completely certain given the lack of information.

“It is based on very little scientific evidence, using the best judgment of seasoned investigators. But with so little evidence, even they would have to be inclined to say that is a guess,” Stout said.

Many also report suffering from rashes and nausea after drinking or touching the water, as well as other negative effects after eating food prepared with it. Restaurants boast that they prepare their meals with bottled water.

Some residents reportedly said they feel like “lab rats” as a result of hearing contradictory statements from officials regarding their water.

"People are saying it at public forums, in news articles, on protest signs," said Vivian Stockman, spokeswoman for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. 

Stockman told Al Jazeera she wasn’t convinced of the water’s safety, or of the public's trust in officials' statements. 

At one point, after officials lifted the water ban, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said it was up to residents whether or not they wanted to drink the water.

Tomblin told Al Jazeera’s Robert Ray in January that he was “occasionally” drinking the water. Other officials in public forums, including congressional representatives and a water supplier representative, say they're drinking the water without fear. 

Their constituents don't say the same. 

“I don’t know one person in the impacted area who is using the water for drinking or cooking,” Stockman told Al Jazeera. 

“If your nose stills smells it, then it is detectable to you. If you still get a headache from the hot water fumes when you try to take a shower and if you still are getting rashes or watery eyes, then it is still detectable to you."

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