MCHM sends more students home
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.
The incidents were reported while RHS and Midland Trail were flushing all the faucets in the buildings in response to complaints about the licorice odor earlier in the week. School officials said it was "unfortunate" the flushing process was not finished by the time students got to school in the morning, and they had planned to have it done overnight.
At about 6 a.m. Thursday, J.E. Robins cook Nicole Carte said she turned the dishwasher on and ran hot water in the cafeteria sinks, like she has been told to do each morning, and the licorice smell was instantly detectable. Carte's eyes began burning and fellow cook Brandy Holstein said she felt nauseated.
School cooks have been given the OK to wash dishes using tap water but, at J.E. Robins, they're serving students using Styrofoam plates and still using bottled water to prepare food, Carte said. Water fountains and sinks were seen bagged and taped at the school Thursday.
"We just want everything to go back to normal, whatever that is," Carte said.
Kanawha County emergency responders and city officials, as well as members of the National Guard, were at J.E. Robins Thursday morning to test the levels of MCHM in the water.
Bryan Burns, a member of the National Guard taking water samples at the affected schools Thursday, said a new protocol will now be in place for schools that requires testing before and after the flushing process.
"Our plan moving forward is if we get a school or whatever facility claims they have the licorice smell, then what we want to do is come in before the establishment flushes, then come back and re-sample after it flushes so that way we've got a baseline from pre-flushing and post-flushing," Burns said. "I'm not a science guy . . . but that's the standard that the governor set and that's the sample we've been testing for the last couple of weeks, and we would not release a school or anything for consumption under 10 ppb."
Grant Gunnoe, director of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, urged Thursday at J.E. Robins that "it takes such a small amount to be able to smell it."
Ashley Skiles, a parent of a kindergartener at J.E. Robins, who's also a daycare provider at the nearby Kanawha Valley Enrichment Center, was at the school Thursday morning to pick her daughter up, and other students who attend the center's after-school program whose parents couldn't make it.
Skiles, a mother of three, said she's tired of worrying about something she never thought she'd have to.
"You've got to use bottled water for everything, and then they quit with the water distribution sites, and now we have to spend our own money on water that somebody put on earth for us to use and somebody else ruined," she said. "It's really crazy, especially when you've got three kids. You can't give them a bath because you're afraid that something's going to blow up."
Brandi Jones also was picking up her daughter from the school and said that, outside the health issues surrounding the water, she's concerned about the amount of time students have been forced out of school between snow days and the water crisis.
"It's been a while since they've been able to go to school for a full week," she said. "My daughter, she's in first grade and was having a hard time last year. This year, she's doing excellent, and I'm afraid that this is going to hinder her being able to go further."
Skylar Jones, a 9-year-old student walking home after school was dismissed at J.E. Robins, said it's "awesome" to get to miss school again so that he could play video games and that he knows about the chemical leak.
"All my teachers told me was that we're getting out of school because there's like another chemical leak now," he said. "Me and my friends talked about it before. I've been watching the news here and there."
Staff writers Ken Ward Jr. and David Gutman contributed to this report.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at email@example.com or 304-348-4814.