An independent scientific team found low levels of the primary chemical from January’s Elk River leak in all 10 homes it tested in a pilot project funded by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in response to public pressure for more answers about the potential impact of the incident that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 residents across the region.
Members of the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project, or WVTAP, found no concentrations of 4-MCHM greater than 6.1 parts per billion, and most of the homes had levels that were less than 2.2 parts per billion. The average among the homes tested was 1.48 parts per billion.
Contamination levels were well below the short-term, emergency guidelines — 1 part per million from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 10 parts per billion from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration — that federal and state officials have said they believe would not cause any adverse health effects. However, little research has been done on the chemicals involved in the leak, and outside experts have cautioned against drawing firm conclusions because of the limited data. A team put together by WVTAP is scheduled to revisit those health-advisory levels next week.
“At least if the screening levels are correct, those levels are safe — or they might be safe,” said Jeffrey Rosen, president of Corona Environmental Consulting and one of the leaders of the WVTAP effort. “But we don’t know everything. There remain a lot of questions.”
WVTAP’s home testing focused on 4-MCHM, the main component of the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM, which leaked into the Elk from an aging storage tank at Freedom Industries on Jan. 9. The group also looked for other chemicals, but reported finding no breakdown products or any other unusual substances in the home tap water tested.
In mid-February, project organizers took multiple samples at each of the 10 homes where they tested, measuring contamination levels in hot and cold water and from various faucets. They found no strong trends between the sample locations or the water temperature.
Residents were interviewed about any health impacts and about whether they had resumed using tap water for various purposes after state officials and West Virginia American Water lifted a do-not-use order. In eight of the 10 homes, residents had experienced rashes, dizziness, nausea and headaches. Residents in four of those homes sought medical attention.
Many of the residents still haven’t “resumed full water-use activities,” said Andrew Whelton, a University of South Alabama environmental engineer and another leader of the WVTAP effort. Some residents have returned to using tap water to wash clothes or take showers, but still aren’t drinking it or cooking with it, Whelton said.
Residents continue to report that the licorice-like odor from the chemical comes and goes, with locations within homes varying from house to house, Whelton said. Research is ongoing to clarify if leaked chemicals could have been absorbed by home plumbing-system materials, where they could be slowly leaching back into water supplies.
“In conclusion, the problem remains,” Whelton said. “More work is needed to understand the system.”
WVTAP scientists acknowledged that inhalation of MCHM fumes from uses such as hot water in showers could be an important route of exposure for residents, but they said their efforts have not included trying to quantify that exposure in the homes they tested. They also said their home testing — done a little more than a month after the leak — did not provide any answers about chemical exposures for residents who resumed using tap water just after the do-not-use order was lifted.
Earlier this week, the WVTAP team released results that found MCHM in one home near West Virginia American’s treatment plant, prompting new testing and the first public disclosure by the water company of data showing that low levels of chemicals from the leak are leaching from the plant’s filter system into the region’s water supply.
Water company President Jeff McIntyre previously had said that the plant’s carbon filters were not impacted by the leak and were only being changed because of a public perception that they were contaminated with MCHM. When the new test results were made public this week, McIntyre said it was “not unexpected that MCHM effectively captured in filter material may show up in trace amounts in water leaving the plant.”
WVTAP scientists said it will be important to sample the filter material — a process scheduled to be done Friday — and to sample the plant’s treated water once all of the filters are replaced.
Over the past few weeks, the WVTAP project also has published an analysis of MCHM’s odor threshold and put together the most detailed review to date of the limited scientific studies looking at the chemical’s potential health effects.
On Monday, a panel of toxicologists and other experts will meet privately to review published health-effect data on MCHM, and then hold a public news event on Tuesday to announce their findings about what level of exposure to the chemical might be acceptable and protective of human health.
Tomblin appointed the WVTAP team last month, under public pressure over lingering and potentially long-term impacts of the leak from the Freedom Industries chemical tank farm, located 1.5 miles upstream from West Virginia American’s intake serving 300,000 residents across a nine-county region.
Previously, state officials had tested water supplies only at the treatment plant and at public locations, such as fire hydrants and schools. Part of WVTAP’s research is set up to determine if different types of home plumbing-system materials have absorbed leaked chemicals, causing the substances to periodically be re-released into drinking water.
WVTAP organizers and scientists released their findings during a daylong event held in a 400-seat auditorium on the Institute campus of West Virginia State University. The event was sparsely attended, but one organizer later said 800 people watched a webcast by a local television station.
Whelton and Rosen said the point of the 10-home study was not to accurately characterize the levels of MCHM in the more than 80,000 homes impacted by the leak. Instead, they said, the goal was to determine the in-home variability of the contamination, as part of the process of designing a broader regional study.
Rosen said a preliminary estimate is that about 600 homes would need to be tested to provide a reasonable sample to better understand MCHM levels in homes across the leak area. Testing every home would be impractical and costly, Rosen said — perhaps with a price tag of $635 million or more. With a 600-home study, he said, scientists would test for fewer chemicals and do fewer samples at each home, based on the results from the 10-home pilot effort.
Tomblin provided $765,000 for the WVTAP pilot study, but no estimate of the cost of a 600-home study has been put together, Rosen said.
Amy Goodwin, a spokeswoman for Tomblin, said no decision has been made about funding for future phases of the project.
“We expect additional reports from the group next week and will review all recommendations,” Goodwin said. “After all information has been provided and reviewed, we will discuss all resource requests.”
In a prepared statement issued late Friday afternoon, Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Letitia Tierney called the WVTAP results released Friday “reassuring.”
“We have moved from a response to a recovery phase,” Tierney said in the statement. “Today’s results reassure me that we are on the correct path.”
During a question-and-answer session at the WVTAP event, one Charleston resident asked the scientists when she and her family could expect their water to go back to the way that it was before the chemical leak.
Rosen responded, “Your question about as safe as it was or the same water that it was, we don’t have an answer for that.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.