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Public health officials differ on water use

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two prominent West Virginia public health officials had very different takes on the ongoing water crisis at a legislative hearing Wednesday morning.

Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau of Public Health, repeated Wednesday that she is using the water for all purposes, an assertion she has made for weeks.

"Some people are more sensitive than others, I personally have been showering, using, eating, drinking for several weeks now," Tierney said after the hearing of a joint House-Senate commission on water resources.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, was more cautious about using the water.

"I would love to drink the tap water," Gupta said. "At home we are getting, more days than not, a smell. And again, this is just the human element of it. It's so difficult for people to drink as high a substance as water if it has a smell."

State officials have repeatedly said that water is safe to use even if it still has the telltale licorice odor of the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM, which leaked into the Elk River in early January.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that water is safe for everyone but pregnant women if it has less than 1 part per million of MCHM. But the level at which people can smell the chemical is, according to some studies, 1 part per billion, 1,000 times lower than the CDC's standard.

That divergence is one reason why so many continue to mistrust the water, despite official assertions.

"I would encourage them to keep flushing, maybe start the shower, let it run for a few minutes before they get in," Tierney said after the hearing, addressing people who's water still smelled. "The water is, all but for one zone, is at a non-detect."

The state's "non-detect" level means there is less than 10 parts per billion of the chemical in the water - not that there is no chemical there.

Gupta said that his wife - who is also a doctor and someone who has worked with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry -- has chastised him for occasionally drinking the water.

"I have teenage twins, one's taking a shower, the other's decided he wants to use bottled water," Gupta said. "It doesn't get more split than that in a family."

The state Department of Health and Human Resources began collecting data on hospital visits related to the water crisis soon after the leak happened.

When the DHHR stopped collecting data directly from emergency rooms and began evaluating that data, on Jan. 24, 544 people had been treated at 10 local hospitals. The Department emphasized that it "will not be able to determine whether the numbers are truly related to the chemical until surveillance is completed."

According to state officials, Tierney pointed to flu season, anxiety and lack of hand washing as reasons for the hospital visits in a Jan. 18 conference call.

"We're in the middle of flu season and virus season. Many of us haven't been able to consistently wash our hands with soap and water. While the sanitizer is good for cleaning, it isn't great for eliminating a virus. Some people are getting these viruses, as many do every winter." Tierney said, according to a news release.

While he mentioned nobody by name, Gupta seemed to directly contradict that statement.

"We obviously cannot explain away [symptoms] by saying it's the flu or something else. At this time, we shouldn't even try to," Gupta said.

He emphasized that symptoms people were seeing -- rashes, eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach aches -- were not necessarily caused by the chemical. But he also said that it was very likely that the number of affected people could be too low, not too high -- that many people decided to "tough it out" and never even went to the hospital.

Asked why he showed so much less certainty than Tierney, Gupta said, "Maybe the fact that this is not my first rodeo. I've been through these things and I've done this for a long time."

Tierney has been commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health since Nov. 1. Previously she had been a physician and associate quality director at Charleston Area Medical Center since 2010.

"We maybe have different philosophies," Tierney said after the hearing of her divergence with Gupta. "I feel that in public health we've got to be careful how we craft our statements to provide confidence to the public, especially when we're going on evidence-based medicine."

Asked if she felt she was providing confidence to the public, Tierney said, "I know I'm being honest, I know I'm being truthful and I know I'm being as transparent as I can and if that doesn't give confidence, I'm kind of at a loss where else to go."

Tierney emphasized that the state has been consulting with a broad range of federal agencies -- ATSDR, CDC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health -- but declined to name any individual scientists, saying there were probably 50 to 60 of them.

"These experts are not always recognized by name, but by the agencies they serve," she said.

She also said there were "some confidentiality agreements involved."

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, asked Tierney for both the names of the scientists the state has consulted with and the detailed methodology behind the water tests that the state has conducted. Unger said that when federal agencies release reports, they usually come with names at the top.

"They put their names on their reports. This veil of secrecy is very unusual," Unger said after the hearing. "That's where the trust factor is falling down."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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