More than 100 days after a chemical spill into 300,000 West Virginians’ water source, federal officials are trying to determine at what level people can safely breathe the chemical’s fumes.
Over the next few months, the Environmental Protection Agency will work on detecting the spilled chemical in air and creating a corresponding safety standard for inhaling it, agency spokeswoman Liz Purchia said.
It’s the first time federal officials will factor in precautions for more than just consuming the water, which was discovered to be contaminated on Jan. 9 following a chemical leak.
EPA twice asked about making a standard for inhaling the chemical — once on the day after the spill, and again in early February. Both times, officials determined there was not enough information available on the little-known substance, crude MCHM, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokeswoman Bernadette Burden said.
Following weeks of complaints from hundreds of patients claiming symptoms due to chemically tainted water vapors, the CDC has “engaged” with the EPA to try and determine a safe breathing level, Burden told the Daily Mail.
“In developing the inhalation screening level, EPA used as a starting point the short-term health advisory for MCHM in drinking water that was developed by (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry,” Purchia said in an email to the Daily Mail.
“The inhalation screening level was also reviewed by CDC/ATSDR.”
Purchia said the level was not complete, and would not be complete for months. However, she said the CDC and its toxic substance agency have “weighed in” on the level. Purchia and Burden provided no further context for the level under review.
Neither agency provided any information as to what sparked the review of an inhalation screening level.
Until now only the CDC has provided official spill-related health guidance. After a four- to 10-day ban on using tap water, people were told to flush the water lines in their homes and businesses and drink their water again based on the CDC’s 1-part-per-million mark. But the CDC only accounted for drinking the water.
Complaints of rashes and irritation at emergency rooms jumped Jan. 15, two days after officials told some citizens to start flushing their systems and use their water. Chemical levels in water at the regional treatment plant that day were 250 times lower than what CDC considered the maximum safe level.
CDC also only factored in a period of exposure lasting two weeks — not almost four months.
In late February U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., sent a letter to the heads of both agencies asking for such a review, among other requests.
His comments echoed those of many local residents in the weeks after the spill, who showed up at emergency rooms or complained of ailments after using the chemical-tainted water for drinking, bathing, washing or inhaling fumes from the water.
State environmental regulators could use the new air monitoring method in a variety of settings: at the Freedom Industries spill site during cleanup; for odor complaints at homes or businesses near MCHM facilities; or at coal prep plants that use the coal-cleaning agent, said state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater.
“It could be used in the future to respond to any complaints about odors associated with this material,” Gillenwater said.
Future uses are clear and helpful, said Dr. Rahul Gupta, head of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, and Professor Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer from the University of Southern Alabama. With final results not expected for months though, the results could have little practical impact for the people affected this winter.
“I’m at a loss as to what the utility is to the 300,000 people from this particular test,” Gupta said.
“I really think our federal agencies have to work in real time and take advantage of the technology available.”
Gupta also sent a letter Wednesday inviting EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to visit West Virginia to discuss what’s being done in the spill’s aftermath.
Whelton started testing water and pipes in homes with a small team in the first days after the spill. He said he and his team experienced symptoms from the vapor when flushing a home that had water with levels of MCHM at 300 parts per billion.
As anecdotes like his constitute the only monitoring of chemical levels in the air due to water vapor, Whelton said trying to use the new safety level to determine whether people breathed in a dangerous amount of fumes near the leak or at their homes will be difficult.
“Because there was no monitoring down, no air monitoring done, no in-home monitoring done . . . there’s really no way to determine what chemical levels people were exposed to,” Whelton said.
Schools canceled classes in January and February after experiencing chemical odor problems, even while water samples came back safe according to CDC standards. The state asked EPA to craft the inhalation standard after students and school staff reported nausea and dizziness from the licorice chemical scent, Gillenwater said.
“The reason we reached out to EPA was because our Division of Air Quality has no capability for testing for this material,” Gillenwater said in an email to the Daily Mail.
Gillenwater said she is not aware of recent odor complaints in taps at homes or businesses, where the smell lingered long after people were told to resume normal tap water use.
Until the regional water company changes all its filters by late May, researchers say the chemical will likely keep finding its way into the water distribution systems, albeit at levels thousands of times weaker than what CDC deems safe.
The CDC, in conjunction with the state Department of Health and Human Resources and the Bureau for Public Health, recently admitted people could experience symptoms from coming into water with amounts of MCHM “at or near” the CDC’s guidance level.
In that report, both agencies also said there could be a correlation between the spike in emergency room visits and people inhaling fumes or coming into contact with water after they were told they could flush their homes. The report determined 369 of the 584 medical charts reviewed for people admitted to or treated at hospitals showed symptoms that could be linked to the chemical leak.
DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler said its appropriate the EPA is examining a safe breathing level, but didn’t elaborate.
Amy Shuler Goodwin, spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, did not respond to a request for comment. Adler said she was responding for the governor.