Influx of ER visits reported following lifted 'do not use' advisories
Area emergency rooms are seeing an influx of patients reporting symptoms related to exposure to chemical-tainted water, despite the fact that West Virginia American Water has deemed water in many areas safe to use.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said 101 patients visited area emergency rooms in the 36-hour span ending at 7 a.m. Wednesday morning.
They reported symptoms related to exposure to tainted water. He said 46 of those visits occurred between 7 p.m. Tuesday and 7 a.m. Wednesday.
"What we are seeing when we talk to our partners in hospital systems are people with skin and eye irritation, rashes, nausea, upset stomach and diarrhea," Gupta said.
All of those symptoms have been connected with exposure to crude MCHM, the chemical that leaked from a Freedom Industries storage tank Thursday into the Elk River, and then into West Virginia American Water's Charleston treatment plant a mile and a half downstream.
Gupta said many of those patients reported using water that was deemed safe to use by West Virginia American Water. As of Wednesday afternoon, the do-not-use order has been lifted for 51,600 of the 100,000 customers affected by the chemical spill.
Janet Briscoe, director of epidemiology and threat preparedness, said this data is based on data provided by patients. No diagnoses have been made directly correlating patients' symptoms to exposure to tap water.
Gupta stopped short of saying whether he thought the water supply in areas that have been cleared are safe or unsafe. He said he has "no reason to doubt" West Virginia American Water's recommendation that water is safe to use in zones that have been lifted from the do-not-use advisory.
After consulting with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state Bureau for Public Health released an advisory Wednesday night recommending "out of an abundance of caution" that pregnant women drink only bottled water "until there are no longer detectable levels of MCHM in the water distribution system.
"However, the CDC re-affirmed previous advice that it does not anticipate any adverse health effects from levels less than 1 ppm."
A letter from Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, states that the agency has been working with state and federal officials on water screening, testing and issues regarding public health.
Frieden said there were few studies on the chemical and that the only available studies looked at the chemical's exposure effects on animals. Scientists used the available information about MCHM to calculate how much of the chemical a person could ingest without adverse health effects. They recommended a screening level of 1 part per million of MCHM in drinking water.
But scientists have obtained additional animal studies regarding MCHM since making their initial calculations and are currently reviewing those studies. The 1 part per million recommendation remains in effect while scientists review new studies.
"However, due to limited availability of data, and out of an abundance of caution, you may wish to consider an alternative drinking water source for pregnant women until the chemical is at non-detectable levels in the water distribution system," Frieden wrote.
"Having said that, people need to understand they need to make their own individual decisions out there," Gupta said. "That's up to them. But as far as the data and recommendations we have from West Virginia American Water, the water is safe to use.
"We're not saying it's safe. West Virginia American Water is saying it's safe. We are taking their word for it," Gupta said.
Gupta said those who have pre-existing allergies, migraines or asthma may be more sensitive to low amounts of crude MCHM in their water.
Dr. Elizabeth Scharman, director of the West Virginia Poison Center, said there had been 1,407 reports of human exposure, 76 reports of animal exposure and 254 inquiry calls to the Poison Control hotline in connection with use of tap water as of Wednesday morning. She said the center received 75 additional human exposure reports and 15 information calls throughout the day Wednesday.
Briscoe said the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department is reaching out to state and federal agencies to study the long-term health and environmental impacts of the chemical.
Those who are experiencing nausea, fainting, dizziness, skin irritation, vomiting or wheezing should contact the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.
Contact writer Marcus Constantino at 304-348-1796 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @amtino.