With school water issues ongoing, health link denied
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the midst of several days of water issues in Kanawha County schools, including students and staff reporting sickness related to chemical-contaminated water, government and water company officials continue to say there is no clear link between the chemical detected at the schools and the reported maladies.
Friday was the third straight day that the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM, which leaked into the Elk River in early January, was either reported or found at local schools.
At about 8 a.m. Friday, lab results showed that the chemical was detected at 18.33 parts per billion at George Washington High School in Charleston, according to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. That's well below the 1-part-per-million standard that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said is OK for everyone except pregnant women.
GW did not close Friday. Another sample taken Friday morning showed "non-detect" levels at the school.
The test result was not posted to the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management website until just after 1 p.m. Friday. At a legislative hearing Friday morning, state HSEM Director Jimmy Gianato said that when test results come back to his department, they are posted online within five minutes.
Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said that, previously, counties have gotten the results before they are sent to him to post on the website.
Eighteen schools reported the odor on Thursday and Friday, according to Kanawha County school officials. Only one test at those schools -- the one at GW -- found evidence of the chemical.
On Thursday, three Charleston elementary schools, J.E. Robins, Watts and Overbrook, sent students home early after staff members reported the odor.
Nicole Carte, a cook at J.E. Robins, said that when she turned on the dishwasher Thursday morning, she immediately smelled licorice and her eyes began burning. Brandy Holstein, another cook, became nauseous.
Riverside High and Midland Trail Elementary, both in the Belle area, released students early Wednesday and were closed Thursday because of complaints of the chemical's telltale licorice odor.
One Riverside teacher fainted and was taken to the hospital. A student also was taken to the hospital. Several others complained of lightheadedness, burning eyes and burning noses.
Lora Young, the head cook at Midland Trail, said she felt dizzy and faint all morning.
Kanawha County Schools Superintendent Ron Duerring said Friday that a "rapid response team" was assembled and will now determine if schools should close because of the water.
"At GW, we can continue on with school because, my understanding is, it was below the acceptable threshold but higher than what the governor suggested. That's why we called this team together -- to determine whether schools should close," Duerring said. "What we were told was that a smell doesn't mean it's unsafe. Everybody's different."
All of the reported symptoms were from breathing the licorice-scented air, not from contact with, or ingestion of, the water. However, there are no plans for any kind of air-quality or water-vapor testing.
Liza Cordeiro, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said there has been no discussion of air-quality testing in schools.
As far as air-quality testing more generally, Gianato referred questions to the Department of Health and Human Resources.
Allison Adler, a DHHR spokeswoman, said the agency hasn't done any air-quality testing in several years and has no plans to do any. She referred questions to the Department of Environmental Protection.
Tom Aluise, a DEP spokesman, said the department "does not have the analytical instrumentation suitable for measuring an organic compound like MCHM." He said the agency had reached out to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for possible assistance.
Also Friday, officials continue to discount the reported symptoms, saying that the schools' water has shown "non-detect" levels of the coal-cleaning chemical and there is not yet a clear link between the chemical and the illnesses.
All five schools that closed for some period this week tested at "non-detect" levels before and after the incidents. That does not mean there was no chemical at the schools, though, it just means there was less than 10 parts per billion, the minimum level at which the state tests for.
The state's "non-detect" level is 1,000 times stricter than the CDC standard, but the chemical often is detectable by smell even when it's not detectable by lab.
Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water, said he could not speak to reported illnesses when the schools were testing at "non-detect" levels.
"I'm a fact-based guy, I'm a numbers guy. I know that the school was non-detect," McIntyre said Thursday. "I can't talk about health-based effect and people's effect on themselves or what they may feel or what they may go to the hospital for. I can't connect the two -- I have no facts to connect them."
Dr. Tanja Popovic, director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, also could not reconcile the "non-detect" levels with the illnesses.
"The screening levels that we've recommended and have been confirmed are the ones that allowed people to use the water without harm from MCHM," Popovic said Wednesday. "It's very hard for me to say now that these symptoms are associated with MCHM, when the levels are non-detectable."
At the legislative hearing Friday morning, Gianato, said, "We don't know why they're getting sick.
"One of the principals told us they had several students with stomach viruses and strep throat."
That echoed previous statements by Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau of Public Health, who blamed chemical-related hospital visits on flu season, anxiety and lack of hand washing.
Tierney was scheduled to speak at Friday's legislative hearing, but canceled. A spokeswoman said she had previously scheduled meetings.
Those explanations weren't good enough for Senate Majority Leader John Unger, the chairman of the Water Resources Committee that Gianato spoke to.
"Jimmy Gianato says they've tested all the schools and the levels are low, but then I come out of the meeting, and the Kanawha County Health Department officials tell me that, just this morning, GW was tested above the level," Unger said. "I hear what the authorities are saying, but I also hear what the people are saying, and they don't say the same thing. There is a major disconnect going on.
"It reminds me of that old [movie] (what is it?) 'A Few Good Men': 'You can't handle the truth.' I keep picturing that, and I hope it's not the case."
Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, also ridiculed the psychosomatic explanation of illnesses.
"We obviously cannot explain away [symptoms] by saying it's the flu or something else," Gupta said Wednesday. "At this time, we shouldn't even try to."
Unger agreed. "You can't just say people are sick because they think they're sick, especially when it's children," he said. "That's unacceptable."
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