CDC: West Virginia water now OK for all

But many remain skeptical and some doctors have cautioned certain patients to avoid it

Al Jones of the West Virginia Department of General Services tests the water as he flushes a faucet at the State Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia on Jan. 13, 2014.
Steve Helber/AP

A federal health official told West Virginians in the area affected by a chemical spill that the tap water is safe for all uses Wednesday, but public skepticism remains over its purity and some local doctors are advising some of their patients not to ingest it.

The Jan. 9 spill of MCHM, a coal-cleaning chemical, at Freedom Industries in Charleston prompted a water-use ban for 300,000 people that lasted as long 10 days in some areas. After officials cleared the water for use by thousands of residents on Jan. 19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials advised pregnant women to consider using water from a different water source.

However, on 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 assessment that pregnant woman should avoid the water was meant to help them to make health decisions: "They may not want to eat certain food. 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, such as children under 3 and people with compromised immune systems, not to drink it, said Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for Kanawha and Putnam counties.

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 complained of itchy eyes and noses. State schools Superintendent James Phares said a teacher who fainted and a student were taken to a local hospital.

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 remain in the water supply without endangering people.

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

House Speaker Tim Miley and Minority Leader Tim Armstead urged Tomblin to start representative sampling in select homes across the affected nine-county area. The lawmakers suggested urging West Virginia American Water to pay for the tests, but said the state should conduct the actual testing.

The governor's spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin confirmed that Tomblin is evaluating in-home testing options.

Riverside High and Midland Trail Elementary in Kanawha County closed Wednesday morning because of a prevailing licorice smell resembling the chemical that spilled. The schools canceled Thursday classes, too.

Phares said schools were flushing their pipes Wednesday because of a water main break earlier in the week and hadn't finished before students arrived.

Students will return to those schools only when the chemical is no longer detected, Phares said. The West Virginia National Guard is conducting tests Wednesday evening and Thursday morning.

The chemical wasn't detected in previous testing.

Popovic argued that the doctors' advice to not drink the water doesn't conflict with CDC recommendations.

"Because the general guidance is applicable to everybody, there are always individuals who may be a little bit different and they want to implement additional measures staying away from something," Popovic said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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