Gupta says ER visits a ‘gross underestimate’ of people affected by leak

DAILY MAIL FILE PHOTO Dr. Rahul Gupta, Health Officer and Executive Director of the Kanwha-Charleston Health Department, is preparing to announce the number of residents who suffered adverse health effects as a result of the Jan. 9 chemical spill and water contamination.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The number of people who suffered from some negative health effect following this winter’s chemical leak is believed to be “significantly” higher than previous estimates, the head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department said.

Dr. Rahul Gupta is scheduled to announce today the number of people believed to have suffered adverse health effects as a result of the Freedom Industries chemical spill.

“I believe the data we will release (today) is consistent with our statements previously that the people who visited the emergency rooms may have only been the tip of the iceberg,” Gupta said Monday.

Professor Andrew Whelton of the University of Southern Alabama hinted that the number could exceed 100,000.

State officials discovered thousands of gallons of crude MCHM, a coal-cleaning chemical agent, leaking into the Elk River from a faulty storage tank in early January. About 300,000 people were told not to use the tainted water, but reports of potential exposure symptoms flooded local hospitals and health departments.

Twenty-six people were admitted to hospitals and more than 500 were treated in emergency rooms for potentially chemical-related symptoms, according to final data provided by the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

Gupta wouldn’t say Monday how many people he believes were affected, but he called the emergency room figure a “gross underestimate.”

Whelton, who began researching the effects of the spill days after the event, said Gupta’s data was collected before he joined the West Virginia Testing Assessment Program. He referred specific comment about the findings to Gupta, but seemed to agree that hospital data could “drastically underestimate” the number.

Gupta plans to present the findings this afternoon in an online seminar conducted by the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

Gupta emphasized that the severity of symptoms probably played a role in the difference between his numbers and those collected by the state.

The most common reported symptoms after the chemical leak were skin irritation, eye pain, nausea and headaches. Gupta said most people who had these symptoms probably realized they were possibly the results of contact with contaminated water, following advisories to avoid contact.

“Of course when they stop the exposure, many of these symptoms do go away,” Gupta said.

Even though these people didn’t think the symptoms warranted a hospital visit, Gupta said they still help show the true picture of the full effects of the leak.

“It’s critical to understand the complete public health impact in our community,” he said.

“It’s very important to develop a science, and base current and future decisions on science and data.”

A key component in making those decisions at the state and local level is a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report, called an epi-aid study, is expected to definitively state whether symptoms reported at hospitals were, in fact, connected to the leak.

Allison Adler, a DHHR spokeswoman, said in an email the state needs the results of the study before it can move forward with longterm medical monitoring. After lengthy debate, state lawmakers agreed the Bureau for Public Health should pursue such monitoring.

The DHHR also needs results of its own study, information from the WV TAP team, and data from each of the affected local health departments.

“(DHHR Secretary Karen) Bowling wants to have all this data to review before moving forward. When that will occur is unknown but we are optimistic that it’s sooner than later,” Adler said.

The DHHR study results won’t be ready for a few months, she said.

The state and local departments did expect the CDC would have completed its study by now.

“I think whenever this type of information is collected, the data and analysis collected should be available within days and weeks, not months to years,” Gupta said.

In an email, CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden said the review is ongoing but such analysis takes time. Nothing — including the departure of CDC official Dr. Tanja Popovic — has delayed the review, Burden said. Popovic, who said during a February press conference people could use the water but wouldn’t say if it was safe, resigned her position in March.

In addition to Gupta, the seminar, titled “Learning from the Elk River chemical spill” includes representatives from the state DHHR and Poison Center.

The seminar starts at 2:30 p.m. Registration is free. Those interested in registering for the seminar should visit

Contract writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or Follow him at

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