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Parents, stay calm and carry on

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- How should you explain a chemical leak that contaminated the water for 300,000 people in parts of 9 counties to your 5-year-old son or daughter?

How do you reassure small children about the water crisis while even the experts know so little about the chemical that leaked in the Elk River and into the water supply?

What do you tell your kids when all "do-not-use" orders have been lifted and officials say the water is safe -- but the vast majority of people still won't drink it?

Because of the uncertainties surrounding the water crisis, answering those questions can be challenging, said Dr. Scott Needle, a Florida pediatrician with the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"Part of it is, admittedly, tough because the situation is still evolving," Needle, a member of the AAP's Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council, said. "The experts are still getting together to figure it out. The uncertainty is a little unnerving and it makes the situation hard to deal with."

But there are things that parents can do to reassure their children, Needle said.

"One of the biggest things I like to tell parents is to, first, open up and talk to the kids and see if they have any questions about what's going on," Needle said. Sometimes children are not worried or they are not interested in the situation. Other times, they may have misconceptions about what's going on.

"Do it at an age-appropriate level using simple terms judging by how much they understand or how interested they are in it," Needle said.

He recommends that parents monitor how much news coverage their children see about the chemical leak.

"Make sure they're not getting over-exposed to the media cover," Needle said. "A lot of times, they may not understand what they're seeing -- or if they're watching some coverage over and over, that can be traumatic."

Children take their cues from their parents. If parents can stay calm about a situation, that goes a long way in keeping their children from getting upset, Needle said.

"If the parents can at least put on a good face for kids and try to reassure them that people are doing the best they can in this situation to keep them safe, that's going to go a long way in reassuring them," Needle said.

Schools in affected areas are tentatively scheduled to reopen Tuesday, after Monday's federal holiday. School districts in the affected areas will offer students bottled water at least through this week. In Kanawha and Boone counties, students will use hand sanitizer instead of soap and water. Neither district had a clear plan for water-fountain or sink use.

Whether students should use the water or not is up to individual families, Needle said.

"I think, ultimately, that's up to each family to decide for them because, unfortunately, no one can give them a definite answer [about whether it's safe or not]," Needle said. "The experts are saying, in their estimation and review, they believe it is safe.

"Understanding that not everyone believes everything that comes out of the authorities' mouth, if the parents want to take extra precaution, then I think the best thing would be talk to their kids and let them know what they, the parent, would want them to do in this situation."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that pregnant women in affected areas avoid drinking tap water until levels of the leaked chemical, "Crude MCHM," are undetectable in the water. Needle said that while he's not an expert on the matter, it would be logical to protect small children from drinking the chemical, too.

"For the women who are pregnant, I think it makes sense to be extra cautious there, since the fetus is still developing and is going to be most vulnerable," Needle said. "As for younger kids, they are admittedly more vulnerable, as opposed to older kids, to different toxins.

"If you are going to have another group that you wanted to be particularly cautious about, it would make sense to try and protect younger children."

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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