Jan 16 8:00 PM

West Virginia doctor on tap water: ‘I don’t think it’s safe’

Al Jones of the West Virginia state government's General Services Division tests the water as he flushes the faucet Monday at the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va.
Steve Helber/AP
Dr. Elizabeth Brown
America Tonight

When the tap water started to flow again in parts of West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley on Monday, some of Dr. Elizabeth Brown's patients began to trickle into her office with some peculiar symptoms.

"I started seeing people in the afternoon who came in with skin rashes after trying to wash their hands, rashes all over their body after showering, irritated eyes, some nausea and fatigue, and that's just the tip of the iceberg," Brown told Joie Chen Wednesday on America Tonight.

On Thursday afternoon, America Tonight caught up with Brown after work. She was making a 25-minute drive just to take a shower in an area unaffected by last week’s chemical spill that disrupted local water service.

“I don’t think it’s safe to drink or bathe in,” she said. “I still maintain that that should be for everybody.”

Many of her patients Thursday reported nausea, vomiting and flulike symptoms after using the tap water that state officials and the local water utility insist is safe to use, she said.

“One guy told me as soon as he flushed, the [licorice] smell made him dizzy and lightheaded, then he blacked out,” she said. That man is a runner who takes no medications and is otherwise healthy, she said.

“My patients who are complaining are very young and healthy,” she said. “It’s not the old, infirm people who are complaining.”

Brown and her patients were among the 300,000 West Virginians who were without tap water for at least four days, after a licorice-scented chemical, later identified as 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), leaked into a river just upstream from a major regional water processing plant.

“I think they’re scared,” Brown said of her patients' dispositions. “I think fear is the biggest thing I’m seeing.”

Water 'still very cloudy'

This patient of Brown's flushed his water, washed his hands then noticed peeling skin and bright red rashes appearing. It was especially irritated under his wedding ring.
Courtesy of Dr. Elizabeth Brown

Since Monday, state and water company officials have systemically lifted do-not-use orders for many people in the nine affected counties, spelling out that they should flush out their faucets and appliances that use water before washing, cooking or drinking.

But despite official go-aheads, reports surfaced Wednesday casting doubt on whether the water was truly safe. Brown went public about the medical problems she noticed in patients. Then, the Charleston Gazette reported that 101 people in the affected areas visited emergency rooms between Monday evening and Wednesday morning for symptoms they attributed to "crude MCHM." Late Wednesday, state health officials advised pregnant women in the affected area to only drink bottled water until the chemical is no longer detected in the area's tap water. That recommendation was issued "out of an abundance of caution" and based on consultations with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Brown, an internal medicine specialist based in the state’s capital of Charleston, said she's seeing unusual symptoms in some patients that have used the water since Monday. Some of those symptoms include respiratory issues after inhaling steam from a shower, blistered skin and chest tightness.

Brown prescribed steroid ointments to patients with rashes, and they're reporting improvement. She said that even the pipe-flushing process outlined by state officials, while it made a huge difference in the smell and appearance of the water, likely wasn’t good enough.

“The water in my office is still very cloudy and has a very foamy appearance to it, and we had some brown sediment come out of it,” Brown told America Tonight on Wednesday. “I'm not convinced that the flushing that has been done is enough to ensure that the water is safe to consume or bathe in."

“I think (patients) are scared. I think fear is the biggest thing I’m seeing.”

Dr. Elizabeth Brown

Charleston, W.Va.

Standing by water's safety

On Thursday, Laura Jordan, spokeswoman for the West Virginia American Water, said that the water company trusts the safety guidance it’s received from federal and state agencies, adding that she doesn’t expect any changes to be made to its recommendations on how customers flush out their home pipes.

About three-quarters of the company’s customers have had the do-not-use order lifted. But the fact that the CDC issued its directive to pregnant women two days after everyone in certain areas was told the water was safe has ignited particular concern. Jordan said that decision was a surprise to water company officials, but said that they worked to get the word out as quickly as possible.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito even sent a letter to the CDC Thursday afternoon, chastising the way it had handled this issue, noting that it impacted as many as 150,000 people.

“We are deeply disappointed in the CDC for recommending a screening level before receiving all relevant studies and information, which has resulted in confusion, fear and mistrust among Kanawha Valley residents," the lawmakers wrote.

In a Thursday afternoon conference call, CDC officials stood by the safety of the water. “Based on the water sampling we’ve seen, allowing the water to be used for drinking and cooking is perfectly appropriate,” Dr. Vikas Kapil said.

Brown said that she’s also concerned about the long-term effects of being exposed to the chemical, and said that she wishes local health officials would collect and share information among doctors in the area.

“I wish the health department would spearhead something where we could all get together to better treat and educate our patients,” she said. “But nothing has happened yet.”

More from America Tonight


West Virginia
Pollution, Water

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter