Though health officials have told residents in and around Charleston, West Virginia, that their tap water is now “acceptable” for all uses after last month’s chemical spill, many residents disagree and are not drinking tap water.
On January 9, Freedom Industries discovered the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) was leaking from a storage tank into the Elk River and into Charleston’s water supply. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced near-total water-use restrictions for 300,000 West Virginians, and these lasted for more than a week in some areas, CNN reports. Residents and businesses were told that tap water should be used for toilet flushing and fire fighting only.
The spill was originally estimated at about 7,500 gallons, but Freedom Industries later upped that to 10,000 gallons, and the company has said a second chemical – a mix of polyglycol ethers, known as PPH – was also leaked. These chemicals are used in coal processing and little is known about their effects on human health. Tomblin has asked the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to fund an immediate health study.
An independent water test conducted this month at CNN’s request found trace levels of MCHM in both river water and in tap water from two homes in Charleston. The amounts ranged from less than 0.5 parts per billion (ppb) to 1.6 parts per billion, well below the 1 part per million (ppm) that the CDC has said it considers unlikely to be associated with any adverse health effects. But, according to Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County health departments,”They’re not saying it’s safe to drink. That’s the word. People are looking for that word.”
The CDC does not use the word “safe” in its official guidance, CNN reports. It merely says that based on animal studies, levels of the chemical were calculated at levels where “a person could likely ingest without resulting in adverse health effects.” An advisory to pregnant women recommended that they not drink tap water until MCHM is undetectable. Health officials have expressed concern about possible effects on the developing brains of infants and children.
Residents continue to use bottled or trucked-in water, and many restaurants have posted signs saying they are using bottled water in cooking, according to CNN. Dr. Gupta said a recent survey indicates that only 4 percent of area residents are now drinking tap water.