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 distrust 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 are fewer 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."