CHALRESTON, WV -- People across the Kanawha Valley are all asking themselves the same questions: Is my water safe to drink? Can I shower in it? Can I even rinse off my toothbrush?
After thousands of gallons of a relatively-obscure chemical leaked into the Elk River on Jan. 9 and then into the water plant that supplies nine counties, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set 1 part per million as the safe level for crude MCHM in drinking water based on limited information available, mostly tests on rats.
However, the CDC took a step back on Jan. 15 — two days after the first zone had been lifted from the do-not-use order — and advised pregnant women not to drink tap water until undetectable levels of crude MCHM are found in the tap water.
In a press conference at the state Capitol this month, Dr. Tanja Popovic, acting director of the National Center for Environmental Health within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC doesn't like to use the word "safe," and that the advisory was meant to "empower" pregnant women.
"What we want them to do is we want them empowered to feel that they can follow their instincts and do what they feel is good for them," Popovic said.
If you ask Elizabeth Brown, an internal medicine doctor from South Charleston, about the safety of your tap water, her advice to you will be simple: "I don't think it's really safe for anyone at this point."
Brown has seen the effects of what she believes is MCHM exposure first-hand. She continues to see them daily.
"My patients who are coming in with strange rashes and irritated eyes they connect with the water, I'm telling them to avoid it for now and use extra caution," Brown said.
Dr. Brown sees rashes with "chemical burn type of appearances" most often, but she has also seen patients who complained of red or inflamed eyes, partial loss of vision, difficulty breathing, headache, nausea, diarrhea and dizziness as a result of exposure to tap water.
Many of these symptoms are consistent with what Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha Charleston Health Department, has said are possible side effects of MCHM exposure.
Brown said one patient brushed her teeth and the roof of her mouth after rinsing her toothbrush in tap water and developed "ulcer-like lesions" soon after.
"We're unwilling participants in this experiment," Brown said. "The best we can do is learn from it and follow the long-term data so hopefully we can keep this from happening again. There are still a lot of unanswered questions and people deserve to know and have their questions answered."
Brown said she created a spreadsheet to track the long-term health of patients who are reporting water-related symptoms.
She recommends infants, young children, people on dialysis, people with immune disorders and "anyone uncomfortable" with using their tap water to avoid contact with it.