CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After a Jan. 9 chemical leak into the Elk River imposed a water ban across several counties and closed schools for more than a week, officials said by providing students and cooks with bottled water and limiting tap water use, appropriate precautions had been taken to prevent potential problems associated with consumption.
Now, some schools in Kanawha County are being forced to close again because the black-licorice odor associated with the Crude MCHM coal-cleaning chemical is returning, and there are reports of fainting and other side effects while faucets are running -- posing questions about the potential dangers of inhaling the water's fumes, as well.
Three Kanawha County schools abruptly closed Thursday after school staff members reported that they'd smelled the odor, and cooks complained of burning eyes and nausea. The incidents mirrored problems at two Belle-area schools on Wednesday, which also were forced to dismiss students early.
Kanawha County Schools Superintendent Ron Duerring said the school system will now work with a "response team" -- made up of National Guard members and local health officials -- that will be called in, if needed, and that the team will conduct random water sampling at schools over the next few weeks.
Results from all five schools that were closed this week because of the odor came back as "non-detect" by late Thursday afternoon, which means the chemical was at 10 parts per billion or less -- the minimum levels at which the chemical can be detected in water.
But water samplings don't take into account how the chemical might affect people who are exposed to steam or water vapor that contains the chemical -- such as when hot water faucets or dishwashers are turned on.
The West Virginia Department of Education and county school systems have not discussed conducting air-quality tests, WVDE spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said.
"Health experts have told us that odors may remain in the water but that does not mean the school is unsafe," Duerring said in a statement. "We understand that students, parents and teachers remain concerned. So in an effort to bring peace of mind to parents, we are working with a Response Team which will be called out if a concern arises."
The schools planned to be open Friday, a decision that was made by health department officials, the Governor's Office, the National Guard and the Department of Education, according to a release.
In its "material safety data sheet" for Crude MCHM, Eastman Chemical, which makes the chemical, warns that exposure "causes skin and eye irritation" and that "at elevated temperatures, vapor may cause irritation of eyes and respiratory tract."
"In case of irritation from airborne exposure, move to fresh air," the Eastman document says. "Get medical attention if symptoms persist."
Richard Denison, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund who has been following the Elk River leak, said it's important to remember that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 1-part-per-million "screening level" for MCHM is based on ingesting the chemical in drinking water. That number might not fully account for inhalation of MCHM fumes, which is the issue being raised at area schools, Denison said.
"There is no data directly on what levels are safe in the air," Denison said. "The notion that [the CDC number] gives you any information about safe levels in the air is just false."
Denison said state and local officials should not try to downplay any symptoms reported by students or school employees, given the lack of air-quality monitoring and toxicity data.
"We're 28 days after the spill, and this stuff is still being detected in the homes and schools, at least by the nose," Denison said. "It suggests this whole business about flushing isn't working."
Denison said burning of the eyes "is a clear symptom of MCHM exposure, and the presumption should be that it is MCHM exposure, unless there is evidence otherwise."
Watts, J.E. Robins and Overbrook elementary schools in Charleston sent students home before noon Thursday -- just one day after Midland Trail Elementary and Riverside High dismissed students early because of similar complaints.
On Wednesday, an RHS teacher -- who had fainted -- and a student were transported to the hospital, while several others complained of lightheadedness and burning eyes and noses, according to officials.