CHARLESTON, W.VA. — New data was released Tuesday pertaining to the Freedom Industries chemical spill, though researchers said much remains unknown.
A panel of health experts affiliated with the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project provided a new safe amount for exposure to crude MCHM — the main chemical involved in the incident.
The number differs significantly from threshold put forth by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the hours following the spill.
“The panel’s MCHM safe exposure level was less than the CDC’s 1,000 (parts per billion) value but greater than the 10 ppb state of West Virginia’s inter-agency threshold,” a summary provided by the team states.
The panel determined a safe level of 120 parts per billion, but Dr. Michael Dourson, chairman of the panel and president of the nonprofit Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, said it’s an apples and oranges comparison with the CDC’s level.
The panel determined its level as an average amount consumed over the course of a 28-day period. As Dourson explained during an event at West Virginia State University Tuesday, that means anyone who was exposed to water with an average of 120 parts per billion or less for 28 days shouldn’t experience any negative health effects.
By comparison, the CDC described its number as the “short-term” screening level, without defining short-term. Dourson was quick to say the amount of time for exposure matters.
The state and the CDC have used the 1,000 parts per billion (or 1 part per million) level as a red line. Residents were told not to consume, bathe in, cook with or generally use the water for anything but flushing toilets and putting out fires as long as test results leaving the West Virginia American Water Co. treatment plant showed levels of 1 part per million or higher.
Once tests fell below that amount, the water company and state officials told residents they could flush their pipes and begin using their tap water.
“What you really want to do is a one-day health advisory,” Dourson said after the panel. “Could you estimate that? You could do that. We really did not do that.”
A CDC spokeswoman acknowledged receiving Daily Mail questions but did not respond. Tuesday afternoon, Karen Bowling, head of the state Department of Health and Human Resources, said the DHHR appreciates the work of the panel.
“It’s clearly an affirmation that our water is safe and the CDC’s calculation at the time of the incident was appropriate,” Bowling said.
The panel took into account possible adverse health effects for skin exposure and inhalation. The CDC level pertains only to consumption.
Dourson and others involved with WV TAP, including team leader Jeff Rosen, said they thought the CDC number was appropriate, as were the calculations used to arrive at the number.
“The CDC number was not wrong, it was based on different assumptions than our number,” Rosen said after the panel presentation.
Dourson agreed, adding the health panel tried to be extra conservative in its analysis to take into account safety for formula-fed infants.
Using the panel’s number, Dourson said someone could at times be exposed to water with the chemical at an amount higher than the CDC’s level and be fine, as long as the average exposure during a 28-day period came in at or below 120 parts per million.
It’s unclear how the average citizen affected by the spill might practically apply the panel’s safety level data.
More than half of the potentially chemical-related symptoms reported to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department came after flushing began — when the water company and state officials said levels of crude MCHM were less than 1 part per million. Dourson didn’t say how the panel’s level and 28-day time frame might explain all of those reported symptoms.
Professor Andy Whelton, one of the WV TAP team leaders, said it would have been ideal if those reporting symptoms had also provided water samples at the same time. That didn’t happen.
“Retrospectively, that’s how you would link the symptoms and tap water,” Whelton said.
Legislation passed this session, and signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin Tuesday, calls on the state Bureau for Public Health to pursue long-term medical monitoring regarding the spill. Health officials say they can’t begin until the CDC determines whether the spill caused the symptoms.
A CDC representative recently told the Daily Mail the report is not complete.
Dourson was the only one of the five-member panel to speak Tuesday. The panel came to its conclusions after an all-day meeting Monday, Whelton said.
“It was intense and very, very scientifically engaging,” he said.
During the event, Dourson acknowledged his nonprofit organization TERA had conducted some work for Dow Chemical, one of the makers of a chemical believed to have been involved in the spill. He said they’ve also done work for Eastman Chemical, the maker of crude MCHM, but not recently. TERA has done work for the state of West Virginia in the past as well, he said.
On its website, TERA says it’s received between 31 and 40 percent of its funding since 2008 from industry and industry related work. The rest comes from “government and other nonprofit work.”
Rosen promised full disclosure reports for each panel member when the final report is released in late April or early May.
Tomblin hired the WV TAP team at a cost of $762,000 after calls for in-home testing of plumbing and other chemical spill concerns. The team is on contract with the state through May 15.
Contact Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or firstname.lastname@example.org.