DEP officials unaware of connection between formaldehyde and spill

Craig Cunningham
Water expert Scott Simonton speaks to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Trace amounts of formaldehyde found in Charleston's water supply are likely connected to the recent chemical spill, two scientists who tested the water told a panel of lawmakers Wednesday.State officials argued there's no way that could happen, and said a certain amount of formaldehyde in the water is not dangerous. West Virginia American Water Co. spokeswoman Laura Jordan said the scientists' report was "misleading and irresponsible."Jordan said the company's procedures are "carefully prescribed, outlined and certified," and would continue to work with government officials and other professionals to determine whether any public health threat exists.See more coverage of WV chemical spill    In a statement Wednesday night, Dr. Letitia Tierney, state Bureau for Public Health commissioner, called the report presented Wednesday by Dr. Scott Simonton, a Marshall University professor and the vice chairman of the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board, "totally unfounded."She and Dr. Elizabeth Scharman, director of the state Poison Center, said formaldehyde occurs frequently in nature and is common in many household products like cheeses and plastic bags.Both acknowledged it is a carcinogen but pointed to standards showing trace amounts are acceptable."People shouldn't just take the statement, 'Oh, we found formaldehyde in the water,' and have that be a scary statement itself," Scharman said Wednesday evening.Simonton disagreed."Frankly, the formaldehyde has me, personally, a little freaked out," he told lawmakers Wednesday.Inhaling formaldehyde can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Simonton presented a report to a joint legislative water resources committee.Officials believe at least 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM and PPH leaked from a faulty storage tank owned by Freedom Industries near the Elk River. An unknown amount seeped into the river and a West Virginia American Water Co. treatment plant Jan. 9, prompting a do-not-use advisory for 300,000 West Virginians."What we know scares us, and we know there's a lot more we don't know," Simonton told lawmakers Wednesday morning.Chemicals can break down -- turn into other chemicals based on their composition -- after coming in contact with things like water, air, skin and sunlight.
Simonton said he and other experts think formaldehyde could result from that process.Simonton and his team, with funding from law firm Thompson and Barney, started testing water samples shortly after the spill was announced. Thompson and Barney is one of many firms involved in litigation against Freedom and others defendants.They tested in a variety of areas around the valley: Simonton said he didn't know the number of samples off the top of his head. He said they just received results Tuesday from samples taken at Vandalia Grille, a downtown Charleston restaurant.The results for three different samples taken there on Jan. 13 show 32 or 33 parts per billion of formaldehyde. Simonton said results from several samples taken from other places are still being processed.The water company allowed facilities in the same area as Vandalia, the first area "cleared," to start flushing pipes the same day.
"It scares me a lot, because it's a known human carcinogen, so any exposure, no matter how slight, is going to increase cancer risks" Simonson said after the meeting."Now, that increased risk can be terribly, terribly small. The problem is, we're seeing it in water, we don't know what the concentration is in air."Tierney and Scharman questioned his testing methods and his decision to release results before discussing them with the state."Our experts are telling us that (crude MCHM) cannot create formaldehyde unless it's combusted at 500 degrees Fahrenheit," Tierney said.Neither Tierney nor Scharman would name those experts. They also wouldn't explain how the 500-degree figure was determined. Neither was aware of any testing by the state for formaldehyde.
Scharman said the experts were the same people who helped create the state's testing measures for crude MCHM.Both said there are safe amounts of formaldehyde established by the CDC. Neither knew those amounts off the tops of their heads, but Tierney referred reporters to two different reports.Data from the U.S. Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the CDC, says the federal Environmental Protection Agency believes "exposure to formaldehyde in drinking water at concentrations of 10 parts per million (ppm) for 1 day or 5 ppm for 10 days is not expected to cause any adverse effects in a child.""OSHA set a legal limit of 0.75 ppm formaldehyde in air averaged over an 8-hour work day," the report continuesA 2005 report from the World Health Organization also says risks are low for short-term exposure.Tierney acknowledged people might not trust the state's response.More tests are needed, argued Dr. Benjamin Stout, an aquatic ecologist and professor at Wheeling Jesuit University."I just don't think you can say (there's no connection) without doing the tests," Stout said.Stout reviewed Simonton's data, participated in the testing and also received funding from Thompson and Barney.Stout said he examined the structure of the crude MCHM molecule. Its two components -- a methyl group and methanol group - could easily decompose and become formaldehyde, he said.Stout and Simonton acknowledge there's a chance the formaldehyde isn't connected to the leak."If we go out to the extreme, it could have been put there by Martians," Simonton said. "But the most likely scenario is a breakdown of MCHM."Scharman said she wants to know if Simonton conducted redundant testing of samples or if he has any idea what levels of formaldehyde were in the water before the spill.Scharman said people need to understand inherent risks in their day-to-day lives."We live in a society where we drive automobiles, we burn coal, we use gasoline, and so the unintended consequence of that, whether it's our choice or not, is that those things get released into the environment," she said. Simonton said he is not using the water. Tierney said she is.Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman said his agency is not aware of any connection between formaldehyde and the spill."That doesn't mean there's not one, we're just not aware of it," he said.He questioned Simonton's testing as well, saying the formaldehyde might have been unique to Vandalia or caused by something other than the spill.Lawmakers at the hearing were caught off guard by the report. Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, called it "shocking." Unger and Delegate Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor, are the co-chairmen of the committee that heard the report. Both said they want more information.Tierney and Scharman said Simonton's report is not going to affect their work. Tierney added she was "disappointed" that Simonton released the information, and said she wished he had called her or other state officials first.Investigations are ongoing.Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., announced Wednesday a congressional hearing is slated for 9 a.m. Feb. 10 at the Kanawha County Courthouse in Charleston.The hearing, called "The Charleston, W.Va., Chemical Spill: Cause, Response and Prevention," will be before the House Infrastructure and Transportation Committee.Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or Follow him at
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