CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Concerned about lingering odors, federal officials recommended a more lengthy "flush" of home plumbing systems than state leaders and West Virginia American Water advised 300,000 residents to use to clean the chemical "Crude MCHM" from those systems, according to newly disclosed government communications.
The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry suggested that residents be told to run water from their homes until they no longer smelled the licorice-like odor of the chemical, according to the communications, obtained under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
The ATSDR said that there was no established "odor threshold" below which residents would not detect the chemical, released into the region's Elk River water supply on Jan. 9 by a spill at the Freedom Industries' tank farm 1.5 miles upriver from the water company's intake.
In a Jan. 10 email message to the state Department of Health and Human Resources, the ATDSR said it did not "anticipate any adverse health effects" from the levels being detected in the water.
"That said, because of the odor and not knowing an odor threshold we would also recommend that the system or residents be told to flush their systems until it was no longer observed," wrote Larry F. Cseh, emergency response coordinator for ATSDR's U.S. Public Health Service.
Late Sunday afternoon, state officials said that their goal was to ensure that residents were not drinking water until it was below a 1-part-per-million public health "screening level" that the federal Centers for Disease Control designed for the emergency situation.
"The odor is a different issue," said Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
Messina said that the federal recommendation for flushing duration was not aimed at any public health issues, but only at the odor question.
"That advice was based on the odor," Messina said. "It doesn't take very much of this chemical to create a smell, but that doesn't mean that it is a public health concern."
Messina said that officials involved in making decisions about the flushing protocol did express some concerns about the capacity of the water company's plant to handle more extensive flushing. "The integrity of the system was the word that was used," Messina said.
Cseh, who was also involved in developing the CDC's emergency health guidance for Crude MCHM, has not responded to repeated phone messages or emails.
Last week, water company officials and the state slowly listed all areas initially affected as cleared to resume using their tap water as sampling showed concentrations of Crude MCHM dropping below a 1-part-per-million screening level set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The exception was an advisory, issued late Thursday, that pregnant women across the region drink only bottled water until absolutely no Crude MCHM is detected in water supplies.
As the water company's Internet map listed more and more areas moving into the "blue" area that officials said was safe, area residents were told to run their hot water for 15 minutes, their cold water for 5 minutes, and outside faucets for 5 minutes to flush the chemical from their homes.
But some residents have complained about the odors during the flushing, and also that a licorice smell is lingering in their water days after they followed the flushing guidance.