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WVTAP report: More data, research needed on chemical spill effects

KENNY KEMP | Saturday Gazette-Mail file photo:
Penny Songer, a cook at Charleston’s Piedmont Elementary School, sanitizes dishes in preparation for the school to reopen, weeks after the Jan. 9 chemical leak into the Elk River.

Experts hired by the Tomblin administration said Friday that key data aren’t available that are needed to fully assess the public health effects of the January chemical leak that contaminated the Elk River drinking water for Charleston and the surrounding region.

Scientists working with the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project also said more research is needed if the potential long-term impact of the leak of Crude MCHM and other chemicals from the Freedom Industries tank farm are to be fully understood. Further study of where chemical contaminants went once they entered the region’s water distribution system and home plumbing systems also is needed, said the new report, put together by an expert panel convened by WVTAP.

“The panel recommended additional research be conducted on chemical fate and transport of the chemicals, to better understand how the chemicals in the spill interact with other chemicals in the water and the water distribution system,” said the report from WVTAP’s panel of toxicologists.

The panel, led by Michael Dourson of the industry consulting firm TERA, said its members “did not have information on what people were actually exposed to in the initial days after the spill.”

Until hiring WVTAP for a 10-home pilot study in February, state officials had staunchly refused to do any testing of tap water in homes, instead relying only on samples taken from the water plant and public locations, such as schools and fire hydrants, as they declared the water safe to drink again after the leak. Some private firms conducted home testing for residents who were willing to pay for the work, but that data haven’t been compiled or analyzed, the WVTAP report said.

“The panel members did not have information on what people were actually exposed to in the initial days after the spill,” the new report said. “They understood that multiple parties measured concentrations of chemicals in the river, water plant, and finished water. The panel recommended that data be collated and analyzed to better understand and estimate exposure.”

The report added that, “air levels resulting from water use in the home would help the understanding of potential inhalation risk from water usage.”

The 92-page report, examining potential health effects of the leak, was one of two new WVTAP reports made public late Friday afternoon. The other report, by WVTAP consultant Michael McGuire, examined the potential interaction between MCHM from the leak and treatment chemicals used by West Virginia American Water at its Elk River intake plant.

McGuire reported that neither chlorine nor potassium permanganate used by the water company appeared to change “the concentration or odor characteristic” of the MCHM, a coal-cleaning chemical.

Using data provided by the water company, McGuire concluded that, despite the treatment efforts, “it appears that during the first few days after the spill, MCHM in the raw water overwhelmed all of the removal processes and moved through the treatment plant without much change in its concentration.”

In the six days following the leak, data cited by McGuire show that the maximum concentration of MCHM in raw or treated water was 3.4 parts per million, or about three times the public health screening level set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. After Jan. 13, the report notes, MCHM tests “are mostly reported as non-detect.” McGuire’s report noted that detection limits “during this period varied widely, resulting in confusion with the public about whether MCHM was present or not.”

The two new reports are the latest in a series of studies released by WVTAP, the group of scientists hired by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin under public pressure over lingering and potentially long-term impacts of the leak from the Freedom Industries tank farm, located just 1.5 miles upstream from West Virginia American’s intake that serves 300,000 residents across a nine-county region.

University of South Alabama environmental engineer Andrew Whelton, Corona Environmental President Jeffrey Rosen and others with WVTAP have urged a broader examination of the study’s impacts, including a much larger testing of home tap water, but Tomblin has yet to indicate if he will support or fund such a project.

In early April, the WVTAP health-effects panel reported that the CDC’s screening level for MCHM was far too weak, because federal officials didn’t consider the risks of inhaling fumes of the chemical or skin contact with MCHM. The panel also said the CDC should have set the screening level to ensure it was more protective of sensitive populations, such as formula-fed infants. Additionally, the WVTAP panel made clear that the screening level was for short-term exposure — it was based on a 28-day animal exposure study — not for longer periods of time.

The WVTAP panel concluded that the appropriate screening level should have been 120 parts per billion of MCHM, which is more than eight times more stringent than the 1-part-per-million emergency number set by the CDC in the hours after the leak. One part per million is equal to 1,000 parts per billion.

WVTAP’s recommended screening level is well above the MCHM concentrations the group found in a sampling of tap water from 10 homes around the region, conducted in mid-February, and also well above the levels more recent sampling by the water company found in water being distributed by its Elk River plant. The new screening level is less protective than the 10 parts per billion concentration that Tomblin set as a goal for the region’s water system at a time when state sampling was not quantifying detections of MCHM below that level.

In its new report, though, WVTAP again made clear that there is precious little information about MCHM’s toxicity.

“The panel was most concerned about the lack of any animal data on developmental toxicity hazard and they recommended that a developmental study in rodents would be useful to evaluate the potential for MCHM to act as a specific developmental toxicant,” the report said. “This could be combined into a two-generation reproductive/developmental toxicity study, if sufficient funds were available.”

Earlier this week, preliminary results of a Kanawha-Charleston Health Department survey showed that, while more than 90 percent of Kanawha County residents are using the public water supply again, only about a third of those residents are drinking their tap water.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.

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