Most Kanawha County residents have resumed using the region’s public water supply, but only about a third of those surveyed by local public health officials say they are drinking that water, according to results made public Monday by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and the University of Charleston.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, the Health Department’s director, said that “well over 90 percent” of the residents surveyed in early April said they were using water supplied by West Virginia American Water Co. But of those, only 36 percent reported that they were using their tap water for drinking purposes.
Almost all residents who said they’re using the water reported using it for bathing or showering, about half for cooking, and about 44 percent for watering plants, Gupta said during a public briefing held on the UC campus.
The telephone survey of about 500 residents conducted April 3-9 found that the Jan. 9 chemical leak at Freedom Industries had eroded public confidence in the safety of the drinking supply that serves 300,000 residents in a nine-county area around Charleston.
When asked to reflect on their thoughts on whether the water was safe before and after the leak, the percentage of those who said it was safe dropped from 80 percent before the leak to less than 30 percent after the leak. The percentage who said the water was not safe increased from less than 10 percent to 56 percent.
Local health officials are working with the UC School of Pharmacy and the Harvard School of Public Health to investigate the impacts of the leak, and the survey is part of an effort to understand those impacts and public reactions.
Gupta and the pharmacy school’s David Latif cautioned that the results are preliminary and are, like any study or survey, subject to a variety of statistical limitations.
“Don’t think this is the be-all, end-all,” Gupta said. “This is just the beginning.”
Last week, Gupta released some initial results that showed that nearly a third of residents reported that anyone in their household had experienced “any illness that they felt was related to the spill.” The most common symptom, reported by 60 percent of those who noted an illness, was a rash or skin irritation.
More than 70 percent of those who reported some illness or symptoms did not seek medical attention, the survey found. And if they did seek medical help, only 28 percent of residents went to a hospital emergency room. The state Department of Health and Human Resources, in its tracking of leak impacts, looked only at emergency-room visits, not at other medical providers, such as family doctors.
“It’s very important that we don’t underplay the seriousness of this,” Gupta said.
The survey found that about one-fourth of residents used their water during the do-not-use order after the leak. About three-fourths of those bathed in the water, while 37 percent drank it and 28 percent gave it to their pets.
When adjusted to match Kanawha County’s age and gender distribution, 30 percent said they used the water during the do-not-use order and 45 percent of those drank the water, Gupta said.
Gupta said a separate survey by Harvard researchers conducted in February found that 7 out of 10 residents followed the do-not-use order.
Harvard researchers also found that 7 out of 10 West Virginians in areas impacted by the leak said they believed there was too little government regulation on the environment. Outside of the leak area, about half said there was too little regulation, Gupta said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.