Federal government scientists on Friday released the final update of their study of Crude MCHM, without answering several important questions about the potential health effects of the January 2014 chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of residents in Charleston and surrounding communities of the Kanawha Valley.
Overall, the work of the National Toxicology Program at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found some potential for negative health impacts related to exposure to chemicals from the spill, but said that those effects were only found to occur at significantly higher doses than residents would have had in their water under the health advisory set up following the Freedom Industries spill.
In a seven-page final report released late Friday, the program said that “most of the spilled chemicals had no effects in the studies that were performed.” And when the chemicals did produce effects, those effects occurred “at dose levels that were considerably higher” than the government’s 1-part-per-million level used by the Tomblin administration after the spill.
“The NTP studies increased our knowledge about the toxicity of MCHM and other spilled chemicals,” the report said. “The results from the NTP studies reduced uncertainty about the information used to develop the drinking water screening levels.”
John Bucher, associate director of the NTP, said in a phone interview that the final report, though it includes a variety of data files not previously made public, contained “nothing of significance” in terms of new scientific findings that hadn’t been made public before, when preliminary federal findings were released in June 2015.
“The conclusions are all the same,” Bucher said. “It’s just tied up in one neat package.”
The new NTP report does mention the posting on a state website of the results of a birth weight study performed by the state Department of Health and Human Resources, in a report that hasn’t been widely publicized locally in West Virginia. That state report said that “there was not an effect” on the percent of pre-term and low birth-weight births in the region affected by the Freedom spill.
Bucher conceded that the federal findings still suffer from a lack of data about inhalation exposures residents experienced, especially when following the state-promoted guidance for running hot and cold water to flush home plumbing systems of any contamination. Federal officials abandoned a plan in the immediate aftermath of the spill to come up with a limit for how much MCHM was safe in the air, no air sampling was done in homes or public buildings, and follow-up research has warned residents could have been exposed to dangerous levels of chemicals during flushing procedures.
“Clearly [inhalation] hasn’t been addressed,” Bucher said. “We really had no clue about what kinds of levels of exposures were happening during the flushing.”
Bucher also said it’s not clear why the federal study found skin irritation effects from chemical exposure only at very high exposure levels, while residents reported such effects as a common symptom when they sought medical help following the spill.
“That’s a puzzle to us,” Bucher said.
He said it’s possible that the chemical effects on humans differ from those on the animals the government used in its tests in ways that scientists don’t yet understand.
Bucher said that, while it’s been discussed with state officials, federal scientists currently have no plans to come to the Kanawha Valley to present their results directly to the public and answer questions from residents about their work.
“We discussed this with the state,” Bucher said. “It’s never come together. That’s all I can say.”