CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Exposure to water deemed “safe” by federal, state and other officials following the Freedom Industries chemical leak might have caused itchy skin and rashes, a spokeswoman for the state health department said Wednesday.
It’s the first time the state has acknowledged people might have experienced symptoms after coming into contact with water that contained amounts of crude MCHM “at or near” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 1 part per million “screening level.”
“It is possible that symptoms occurred while levels of MCHM in water were at or near 1 ppm,” said Allison Adler, state Department of Health and Human Resources spokeswoman.
“Regardless, symptoms that occurred around mid-January were mild and short-lived, resolving with no or minimal treatment.”
For weeks many of the 300,000 people in the nine-county affected area — including Dr. Rahul Gupta, head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department — said it was clear the contamination caused some negative health effects.
But the CDC and the state would not say so until they completed an “epi-aid” study, a review of medical records collected for those who went to the hospital complaining of potentially chemical-related symptoms.
Adler’s comments came in conjunction with a report released Wednesday by the DHHR and the CDC after that review.
The report bolsters previous statements from Gupta and others about a spike in health complaints after people began flushing their water systems while further calling into question the CDC’s health “screening level.”
A CDC spokeswoman acknowledged receiving questions from the Daily Mail but provided no comment.
On Jan. 9, the state discovered thousands of gallons of MCHM and other chemicals leaking from a faulty storage tank owned by Freedom Industries. The chemicals seeped into the Elk River, eventually overwhelming the local water treatment plant and sending tainted water to more than 15 percent of West Virginians.
The state issued a do-not-use order for about 100,000 customers, but it came hours after the state received the first reports of the telltale licorice odor associated with crude MCHM. People began going to hospitals with symptoms they were convinced came from contact with contaminated water through touching, drinking or breathing in vapors.
On Jan. 13, the state said some people could start flushing contaminated water from their home systems because test results showed water leaving the West Virginia American Water Co. treatment plant was at “non-detectable” levels. That week Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin asked for patience but highlighted many more people were able to safely use their water.
“More than one-third of the affected customers have had safe water restored,” Tomblin said in a news release Jan. 16.
At the same time, a report released Wednesday shows there was a spike in hospital visits after the first groups of people were told to flush. Kanawha-Charleston has compiled surveys also showing a spike.
Loretta Haddy, a state epidemiologist, said in a teleconference Wednesday there was a correlation between the go ahead for flushing and the spike in symptoms. In particular, the records show an increase in skin-related complaints after people started touching the water more following flushing, Haddy said.
Adler pointed to the same information before stating people might have experienced skin issues from water with crude MCHM near the 1ppm level. However, she also repeated oft-used state comments about MCHM amounts reaching “non-detect” levels “very early on.”
Since testing began, state and private companies have continued to conduct tests that are able to detect smaller amounts of the chemical in the water than previous testing methods. People in the region complained of the licorice odor for weeks after the state and water company said the chemicals were not detectable.
Water company President Jeff McIntyre has said repeatedly that smelling the chemical in the water didn’t mean the water wasn’t safe.
Laura Jordan, water company spokeswoman, said the company “does not draw any conclusions from this report.”
The CDC and state began the review of medical data Jan. 16. They reviewed hospital charts for patients who received treatment or were admitted from Jan. 9 to Jan. 23, when the state stopped collecting such data.
The state previously reported 26 people were admitted to hospitals and another 533 treated at hospitals with symptoms the patients believed were connected to the leak. However, the CDC and state cautioned repeatedly they could not definitively say any reported symptoms were connected to MCHM.
That’s not the point of the review released Wednesday either, said Dr. Dee Bixler, director of infectious disease and epidemiology for the DHHR.
“However, the symptoms experienced by patients are similar to those described by the (state) Poison Center and similar to those described in animal studies,” Bixler said.
“The hypothesis that MCHM caused the symptoms is plausible.”
The report states the results don’t “prove” MCHM caused the problems, but the symptoms are “consistent” with what is known about the chemical.
Within hours of the leak, state officials had data from the chemical’s maker that said skin irritation, eye irritation and other symptoms were possible from contact or inhalation.
However, the CDC only considered levels of consumption in determining its safety threshold.
“According to the CDC, it did evaluate early on the potential for developing an air-screening level, but learned it would be difficult due to the lack of supporting toxicological information,” Adler said.
The level was also only for “short term” exposure, less than 14 days.
Wednesday’s report reviewed 584 hospital records and deemed 369 were relevant to the chemical leak.
More than half were for patients suffering from symptoms after bathing. showering or other skin contact with contaminated water. Almost 15 percent showed complaints relating to inhalation.
Despite not taking these contamination avenues into account, the CDC said there was no known risk for bathing in water that contained amounts of the chemical at or below 1 ppm.
Haddy said the results of the review were not unexpected.
“Nothing new was found other than what we thought would be a resulting symptom as a result of MCHM,” she said.
Most of those seeking help at hospitals were quickly treated and released, the report said.
“Symptoms associated with exposure to low levels of MCHM in this public water system appeared to be mild and resolved with no or minimal treatment, such as IV fluids after episodes of vomiting or diarrhea and/or medications to relieve nausea or itching,” the report states.
Some patients actually may have suffered from the flu or other mild illnesses not related to the leak, the report said. Gupta has repeatedly said it’s naive to assume the mass amounts of complaints were not somehow related to the leak.
He and Professor Andy Whelton of the University of South Alabama recently estimated about 100,000 people experienced some symptoms related to the leak. Most of those people did not go to the hospital though, which could make a review that only includes hospital records misleading.
The state has repeatedly said it can’t move forward with considering long-term medical monitoring until it has the results of the CDC’s epi-aid study. With these results now, the bureau must await results of its own survey. The state contacted more than 800 local physicians and surveyed local residents. The bureau doesn’t anticipate having all of this information until June.
Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.