Karan Ireland first noticed a strange smell in her upstairs shower on Jan. 6, but didn’t associate it with licorice, or, at that time, with crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, the chemical that came into the public eye three days later, when a chemical leak at Freedom Industries contaminated the Elk River and the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians.
Ireland, an Edgewood resident, said she became sick soon after taking a shower Jan. 6, and experienced a deep cough, chills and nausea — symptoms local, state and federal health officials would later associate with exposure to Crude MCHM.
“I went to bed thinking I’d come down with the flu,” she said. “I was still in bed the morning of Jan. 9, and on Facebook, I started seeing people saying ‘what is that smell in Edgewood?’ As the day went on, we learned about the chemical leak. I know correlation doesn’t equal causation, but I’ve had a dozen friends leave the state since the incident, and I can’t say it’s because of the water; I can only speculate.”
Ireland’s experience is consistent with new preliminary reports from the Chemical Safety Board that indicate the leak at a tank at the Freedom Industries facility was likely caused by “widespread corrosion,” and may have been entering the Elk River before initial reports Jan. 9. Ireland was one of several members of the community who attended a board meeting of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department on Thursday to discuss ongoing efforts to identify the impact of the leak on the nine counties directly affected by it.
Diagrams of tanks 395, 396 and 397, the three tanks Freedom Industries used to store MCHM-PPH showed multiple corrosion points, according to Nasandra Wright, director of environmental health services for the KCHD. There was a particularly large hole in the floor of T-395, Wright said, and more investigation will be necessary to determine the exact causes and possible duration of the leak.
“The problem now becomes ‘when did the leak start?’ ” Dr. Rahul Gupta, chief health officer for the KCHD, said.
For Ireland, who began a local organization called Citizens Actively Protecting Environment, or CAPE, the issue isn’t finding residents who are outraged by the handling of the Jan. 9 leak, but maintaining that outrage long enough to enact changes in policy and law.
“I think we’ve allowed a culture of non-compliance,” said Maya Nye, president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, Inc, a 30-year-old non-profit. “This is the third time in the last five or six years that the Chemical Safety Board has had to visit this valley, and they investigate incidents across the nation. It’s obvious that we have a major problem we need to address, but it seems like we heighten our attention after an incident happens, and then we become complacent.”
Nye praised the KCHD for its role in addressing the leak, but added that it is important for national, state and local health agencies to remain committed to discovering the effects of MCHM in those exposed, and to implement long-term medical monitoring of those who have been exposed and have experienced symptoms. PCACS is petitioning the Centers for Disease Control to continue toxicology screenings on those affected.
“It’s really disconcerting to think that this event was entirely preventable, and there was a major lapse in compliance,” she said. “It’s definitely a major public health issue that could have national implications.”
The KCHD also announced that its back-to-school vaccination clinics will be held Aug. 6, Aug. 8, Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Aug. 7 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Children in kindergarten through college are eligible for the clinics, and the KCHD recommends parents bring all vaccine records for their child and their insurance billing information to the clinic.
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5189 or follow @lydianuzum on Twitter.