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Chemical-related hospital admissions rise

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Even as the last official water restrictions were lifted Saturday, more people were getting sick from exposure to the chemical that contaminated the Kanawha Valley's drinking water, according to numbers provided by a government official.

As of Saturday, a total of 411 patients had been treated at 10 hospitals for reported chemical exposure since Jan. 9, according to Allison Adler, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. Twenty patients had been admitted to four hospitals. None of them are still in the hospital and none of them were in critical condition, Adler said.

Those numbers have increased significantly since Thursday, when the DHHR said 317 had been treated and 14 had been hospitalized.

The West Virginia Poison Center had received 2,302 calls about the chemical leak by Saturday evening, Adler said. Of those, 1,862 were human-related, 98 were animal-related and the rest were requests for information only.

A "do-not-drink" order was lifted Saturday for Buffalo, Frazier's Bottom and Pliny, in Putnam County, after a previously issued "do-not-use" order had been lifted and then rescinded two days later.

The area had been cleared to use water between Tuesday afternoon and late Thursday, but that order was rescinded Friday morning after a fire hydrant in Buffalo tested above the 1-part-per-million level of "Crude MCHM," the coal-processing chemical that leaked into the Elk River in Charleston last week.

In a news release sent out Saturday by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office, government officials pointed to anxiety, flu season and the inability of residents to consistently wash their hands with soap and water as reasons for the hospital visits.

"We're in the middle of flu and virus season," Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of state Bureau of Public Health said in the release. "While the [hand] sanitizer is good for cleaning, it isn't great for eliminating a virus. Some people are getting these viruses, as many people do every winter. In addition, a lot of people are getting very anxious. Anxiety is a real diagnosis and it can be really hard on people and it's OK to be seen by a health professional to ensure you're OK."

Tierney also downplayed the reports of rashes and burns, saying they are easily treated with over-the-counter remedies.

"Some doctors have described it as a 'solar burn,' which is similar to a sunburn," she said in the release. "Basically, it's red skin. Everyone has different sensitivities, and as we move through the flushing process, sediment has been stirred up from your hot-water tank and the pipes."

Kimberly Elliott of Campbells Creek said she and her 7-month-old baby got sick from drinking the water on Thursday, Jan. 9, before the chemical leak and subsequent water-use ban were announced.

Elliott bathed her son, Justin, in the water and also used it in his formula. She said Justin immediately developed a rash and has had diarrhea since then.

"Every time I put a diaper on him, it was full," Elliott said.

Elliott provided photos documenting her son's symptoms.

Elliott took the boy to her pediatrician and then to CAMC General. She said she is disappointed with the way she was treated at CAMC. She said a doctor there wrote in her son's chart that Elliott had given her son a bath in hot water, which he attributed to causing the rash.

"I understand the doctors don't know about this, but they could have been a little bit more [understanding]," she said, adding that she knows better than to put her baby in hot bath water.

Her pediatrician took stool samples of the boy Friday and the family is waiting for test results to rule out the possibility of a viral infection.

Elliott said she also drank the water and experienced some of the same gastrointestinal symptoms as her son.

"I had been drinking the heck out of the water," she said. "I didn't know."

Elliott said that, on Thursday, she'd noticed that, the more water she drank, the thirstier she got. Her stomach and head hurt after drinking it, she said. While the symptoms have diminished, she still has them, she said.

Justin's rash goes away and comes back, she said.

Elliott said she won't use the water again. The experience has given her and her 6-year-old daughter nightmares, she said.

"No, I will never trust tap water again," she said. "It breaks my heart. I don't know what the future holds after ingesting all these chemicals."

Elliott isn't the only one who doesn't trust the water.

Wary of the tests conducted by West Virginia American Water and government officials, South Hills resident Richard Katz said he and five friends paid a private company to test the water from their faucets this week.

That company, Test America, determined Friday that there was approximately 0.17 parts-per-million of MCHM in his water. The tests at the other homes determined a chemical presence less than 1 part per million, the standard the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said is safe for everyone except pregnant women.

However, the CDC's standard comes, in part, from a study done on MCHM, not Crude MCHM, a composite of MCHM and six other ingredients. Crude MCHM is the substance that leaked into the Elk River.

The Governor's Office confirmed, for the first time, on Saturday, that laboratories can detect MCHM down to a level of 0.01 parts per million.

Katz said he would not use his water until readings returned zero presence of the chemical. There's still a lot that officials don't know about the chemical, including its long-term effects, he said.

"Nobody that I know is ingesting the stuff," Katz said. "Some people are taking showers. Many are not. As for me, personally, I'm not touching this stuff."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller sent a letter to the president of West Virginia American Water on Friday, asking if the company's tests showed levels of Crude MCHM rising in certain areas. Rockefeller asked what steps the water company is taking to eliminate the chemical and what steps it is doing to "protect the public from unsafe water."

Staff writers Travis Crum and David Gutman contributed to this report.

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


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