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Feds to test chemical that tainted West Virginia water supply

Authorities agree to do more research on health effects of MCHM, months after it hit water supply of 300,000 people

Federal authorities said Wednesday that they will conduct extensive tests on the health effects of MCHM, the chemical that spilled and tainted the public water supply of 300,000 West Virginians in January. 

The National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, will test the chemical – known for its licorice-like odor – on pregnant mice to see what it does to their young. In the weeks after the spill, authorities advised pregnant women against drinking the water, even after officials had lifted the ban for other people.

Scientists at NIH will also test the chemical on rats to see what it does to their livers, according to The Charleston Gazette. Experts will also expose fish and bugs to the coal processing fluid. The testing is expected to cost about $1 million and take about a year.

“After all these months, it's positive we are moving forward, particularly with developing independent studies which will give our citizens more confidence in their outcomes,” said Rahul Gupta, who is director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and has pushed for further testing.

Environmental activists in the region hailed the move by federal authorities and state officials. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, helped bring it about.

“If only such testing had been done long before the chemical was placed in leaky tanks about a mile upstream from the tap water intake for 300,000 people!” said Robin Blakeman, an organizer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

“West Virginia regulators and elected officials need to learn a lesson from this, and should strongly support federal-level studies and long-term medical monitoring, as well as improved regulations that will preserve our remaining clean tap water sources, now and in the future,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will send an official to determine whether authorities should conduct long-term tests of people who had been exposed to the chemical directly, by drinking or bathing, according to the Gazette.

The chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, also endorsed additional testing.

“There is an absence of toxicological studies available on long-term exposure to MCHM,” said the chairman, Rafael Moure-Eraso. “We applaud any efforts to bring additional information to the people of West Virginia.”

On the day of the spill, Jan. 9, some residents of the region – often those in isolated or rural areas – did not hear about the leak or the ban on using tap water until they had already washed in it, consumed it or cooked with it. State officials had discouraged all of those activities.

Many area residents who did drink the MCHM-tainted water reported nausea and rashes. Worried for their children or themselves, many people crowded hospital waiting rooms. No fatalities or injuries were linked to the spill, but almost eight months later many residents remain uneasy about their tap water, buying bottled water if they can afford it.

The spill, which came from a Freedom Industries tank along the Elk River, prompted an explicit water ban for about a week in parts of the West Virginia capital and surrounding area, with state health authorities issuing all clears only after the MCHM had dissipated.

During the ban, residents relied either on free water provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or charities, or bought bottled water. 

But since little was known about the chemical involved, residents wondered whether their leaders really knew when the water was safe for drinking, cooking or bathing.

Ahead of the test results, the environmental coalition's Blakeman is not taking any chances.

“Most people that I know and work with are still not using their tap water for drinking or any type of cooking that would infuse the food with the tap water,” Blakeman said. “This includes me.”

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