Federal scientists will conduct new studies to examine the potential health effects of exposure to the chemicals released during the January leak at the Freedom Industries tank farm along the Elk River in Charleston, under an agreement announced Wednesday.
The National Toxicology Program at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will conduct the studies, using computer modeling and tests on laboratory animals to learn more about the impact of the leaked chemicals on human health, according to announcements from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the Tomblin administration and the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
John Bucher, associate director of the program, said officials are hopeful the new studies will confirm initial federal findings — reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March — that long-term adverse health effects from the leak are unlikely.
“We’re hopeful that the aggregate information from these studies will give us some ideas about how confident we are in our initial judgment that this is a low-probability issue,” Bucher said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon.
Among other things, the new project will expose small fish, worms and rats to chemicals from the leak in standard studies that determine toxicity, with a focus on examining the potential for adverse impact on fetal development from exposure to pregnant females. Another study will look for potential liver toxicity at low doses, to build on previous looks at high-dose liver effects.
“Those are a good suite of studies, given limited time and resources,” said Jennifer Sass, a Natural Resources Defense Council scientist who has closely followed issues surrounding the leak. “They will be very informative.”
Bucher said his agency also will continue its initial effort, which involved plugging information about the structure of the leaked chemicals into computer models that try to predict toxicity based on similarities to structure of well-studied substances.
According to Bucher, some limited modeling was done early on after the leak as part of a multi-agency effort to review the CDC’s widely-cited 1-part-per-million screening level for MCHM, which was used by state officials and West Virginia American Water as a guide for lifting the “do not use” order on the region’s tap water.
“The chemicals didn’t really give much in any of the prediction models,” Bucher said. “They didn’t show much that would be of much concern, with respect to long-term health effects. They’re irritating chemicals, clearly, and they have all of the properties that have shown up in the West Virginia folks.”
Officials said the studies will cost between $750,000 and $1.2 million. A joint statement from Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said results would be ready within a year. The county health department provided a shorter timeline, saying the studies could be done in six to nine months.
Bucher said the entire project is expected to take a year but that some data from parts of the study would be available before then. Results will be made public on the Internet, although a public meeting in Charleston could be considered, Bucher said.
Also, the CDC has agreed to send a team to West Virginia within the next two months to help state officials determine what sorts of long-term health monitoring is needed for residents exposed to leaked chemicals. CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden said her agency “will provide assistance to the state on surveillance and data collection, to determine the most appropriate next steps.”
The CDC did not agree to provide funding or staff to help with the actual monitoring. Still, Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, called Wednesday’s federal commitment “a very important first step in engaging on the issues that we talked about.”
Gupta added that one of his goals is to ensure that any toxicological studies examine the chemical mixture — a blend of Crude MCHM and another chemical, called PPH — that Freedom leaked into the Elk River, contaminating the drinking water supplies for 300,000 people across the region.
Bucher said that the new studies would examine 4-MCHM and Crude MCHM, as well as some of the “glycol ethers” contained in PPH, another chemical involved in the Freedom leak. But, Bucher said, the new studies will not be using material from a sample of the mixture of Crude MCHM and PPH that was actually in Tank 396 at Freedom.
Sass, the NRDC scientist, praised the federal government for moving resources to generate “reliable and credible toxicity testing data.” However, she said, “the injustice is that the spill wasn’t prevented, and the data — however swift — will still be too little and too late to identify and prevent unsafe exposures.” The leak, Sass said, remains a “perfect example” of why the nation needs to reform its toxic-chemical regulatory law and provide “more support for publicly funded scientists that are not captured by industry.”
Over the past few months, Tomblin has complained that the federal government would not provide more funding for long-term medical monitoring or additional toxicological studies of the impact from the Jan. 9 leak.
While state and federal officials repeatedly have tried to downplay the leak’s effects, hundreds of residents sought medical attention in emergency rooms and, as of April, a third of Kanawha County residents were still not drinking their tap water. The National Science Foundation called the leak “one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century.”
In late June, Tomblin said he had no plans to follow the recommendation of his own expert panel, the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project, which had urged the state to conduct additonal tests of home tap water supplies, to see if chemicals from the leak remained in home plumbing systems. The governor said he would consider state funding for home testing only if new animal testing supported the need for such testing.
Two weeks ago, WVTAP leader Andrew Whelton said his latest university research found that Crude MCHM, the main chemical leaked by Freedom, is far more toxic to aquatic life than a previous report by scientists working for the chemical’s maker, Eastman Chemical. In the aftermath of the leak, government public-health officials relied only on a small collection of Eastman studies in deciding how much MCHM could be harmful to humans. Outside public-health experts have criticized those Eastman studies, and the WVTAP team said the key CDC “screening level” for MCHM exposure in water supplies turned out to be not nearly stringent enough.
The agreement for the federal assistance emerged Wednesday morning after a meeting of state and federal officials hosted in Washington, D.C., by Manchin. Attending the meeting were officials from the CDC, the National Institues of Health, the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and its Bureau for Public Health, and the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
“We have all agreed that it is necessary to conduct additional scientific testing to rebuild West Virginians’ confidence that the water they use and drink every day is safe for themselves and their children, and to ensure there is a clear understanding of any potential long-term health impacts,” Manchin said in a statement issued jointly with Tomblin.
When the animal studies are completed, Manchin said, “we will come together to assess the findings and determine what additional steps we will need to take.”
In legislation passed after the leak, West Virginia lawmakers ordered Bureau for Public Health Director Dr. Letitia Tierney to “endeavor to engage” the CDC and other federal agencies “for the purpose of creating, organizing and implementing a medical study to assess any long-term health effects” from the leak.
That legislation also says, though, that Tierney “shall conduct such study” under her agency’s current legal authority, unless she finds the bureau needs additional legal authority, in which case she must provide a report to the governor and lawmakers on what additional legal authority is needed.
The legislation also requires Tierney’s agency to provide a report of her “findings regarding potential long-term health effects” to lawmakers by Jan. 1, 2015. That report must include the results of the bureau’s “efforts to engage federal cooperation and assistance for a long-term comprehensive study on the costs of conducting such study on behalf of the state.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.