Feds advised flushing until chemical odor gone
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.
In a press release issued Saturday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office explained that issue this way: "MCHM may temporarily adhere to plastic pipelines which could result in a lingering licorice smell for some time. The chemical is such that you can continue to smell it, even at 100,000 times below the no observable adverse effect level."
Messina said that those statements were based on consultations with Louisville Water Co., which he said developed its own odor threshold for Crude MCHM. State officials could not immediately provide any documents explaining how that was done, and Louisville Water officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Eastman Chemical Co., which makes Crude MCHM, says on its "material safety data sheet" that there is "no data available" concerning an odor threshold below which people will not smell the material.
On its Facebook page, West Virginia American Water makes statements about the chemical's odor that are nearly identical to those made in the Tomblin press release.
"The water may still have an odor," the company says. "Odors can be detected at levels far below the level that the Centers for Disease Control determined is protective of public health. In fact, the odor threshold is 100,000 times lower than the adverse effect level established by the CDC."
Likewise, on its "How to Flush Your Plumbing System" guidance distributed online, West Virginia American Water told customers, "Any lingering smell, which is expected, is not a health issue."
Last week, though, there were somewhat conflicting accounts provided about the developing of the flushing guidance given to residents.
Asked, for example, where the 15-minute time period for hot water came from, West Virginia American Water spokeswoman Laura Jordan said, "These details were provided to us by WVDHHR for inclusion in the flushing guidance document.
"I do not have specifics as to how they came to this number, but I would expect that it has to do with the average size of hot water tanks and the rate of flow."
When DHHR was asked a similar question, agency officials responded, "West Virginia American Water Company's 'flushing guidance' was reviewed by the state Health Officer, the Bureau for Public Health's Office of Environmental Health Services, and by the affected local health departments.
"Both state and local health officials concurred with the guidelines developed by West Virginia American Water Company to ensure water quality," the state agency said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at 304-348-1702 or firstname.lastname@example.org