CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A week ago, state and federal public health officials in West Virginia faced an almost impossible task.
Thousands of gallons of a coal-cleaning chemical had contaminated the Elk River, the water supply for 300,000 people in a nine-county region. Little information was available about the potential dangers of the material. There was little time to act, and little information to help make smart decisions.
Given the difficult hand they were dealt, national experts say that officials from federal agencies and the state of West Virginia probably did about the best they could responding to the leak of the chemical Crude MCHM from the Freedom Industries' tank farm just north of Charleston.
Still, public health and toxic chemical experts also say officials here did a terrible job of communicating the risks -- and the important uncertainties -- to the public, and could have done more to ensure their estimate for a safe level of MCHM in water was sufficiently protective.
"They did the best they could with very limited information," said Glenys Webster, an epidemiologist and postdoctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University.
But, Webster said, the entire system the U.S. uses to study and regulate toxic chemicals left decision-makers in West Virginia with a huge vacuum of data and analysis they really needed.
'It's impossible to know with no information what level is safe," Webster said. "I don't think we have the information to make a decision that will satisfy the public."
Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University, agreed, recalling her days dealing with major chemical accidents at the California Department of Public Health and regulating toxic chemicals in the Clinton administration's Environmental Protection Agency.
"I think it's putting too much on people," Goldman said. "What they have is not enough data to establish a drinking water standard. I can appreciate why they went down that road, but you can have a database that is too fragile for doing that."
Throughout the week, state officials and West Virginia American Water have been giving residents the go-ahead to flush out their home plumbing systems and resume using tap water. They've based those decisions on water samples that show contaminant levels dropping below an emergency screening level set by scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
West Virginia officials announced the figure -- 1 part per million -- but did little to explain it publicly, and CDC officials spent most of last week dodging media questions about how they calculated the number.
The CDC's number was based largely on an April 1990 Eastman study in which rats were exposed to varying levels of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol. The study concluded that a concentration of 100 milligrams per kilogram of the chemical was the "No Observable Adverse Effects Level, or NOAEL," for the material.
CDC officials divided that 100-milligram-per-kilogram level by 10 three times, once each to account for differences between rats and humans, differences between different humans and the lack of data on the chemical.