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One-third of households report water-related illness, survey finds

About one-third of households in Kanawha County had at least one person who had an illness they felt was related to the Jan. 9 Elk River chemical leak and ensuing water crisis, according to preliminary results of a new survey from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

The new survey also shows a low level of trust in responding agencies: West Virginia American Water received an “F” in trustworthiness from 38 percent of respondents. The federal government didn’t do much better, getting an “F” from nearly 37 percent of respondents. State and local governments got “Fs” from 31 percent and 18 percent of respondents, respectively.

The randomized phone survey was conducted April 3-8, and 507 people answered all 72 questions.

Previous studies, both from the Health Department and from independent researchers hired by the state, estimated 90,000 to 100,000 people may have had some sort of health impact related to the water crisis.

The tap water of about 300,000 people was contaminated.

The survey’s full results will be presented on Monday.

“We’re going to be talking about how many of those people went to the doctor,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Health Department, said Thursday. “If they didn’t go, what were their reasons for not going — did they not have insurance, did they not have access, did they not feel their illness was bad enough? We have all this data that we’re tabulating.”

Gupta said this survey, like the previous studies, would not show cause and effect — it would not prove any definitive links between the water contamination and reported illnesses.

“What these studies are meant to do is find correlations, find what is the pattern,” Gupta said. “They form the foundation for other researchers to come and build on that body of evidence.”

The University of Charleston partnered with the Health Department on the study. David Latif, a professor and department chair at the University of Charleston’s School of Pharmacy, said the study passed the college’s institutional review board for research design.

“This is a new type of study. We believe it has not been done before, and it’s trying to tap into the perceptions of the residents of Kanawha County,” Latif said. “How they feel they were affected from a communication standpoint, from an economic impact, from a psycho-social standpoint.”

Because the Health Department received no outside funding, it was able to survey only Kanawha County, Gupta said.

The water crisis affected all or parts of nine counties.

The full results of the study will be presented on Monday at 5 p.m. The presentation, at the University of Charleston’s Riggleman Hall, will be open to the public. Also at the presentation will be a team from the Harvard School of Public Health to present separate research related to the chemical leak and water crisis.

Reach David Gutman at or 304-348-5119.

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