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Expert: Flushing effectiveness 'mixed'

Lawrence Pierce
Kayla Sue Jacobs, a volunteer with Mountain Justice, advertises free bottled water the environmental group was handing out Friday at the Capitol. The organization was protesting the state government's handling of the water crisis caused by the Jan. 9 leak of the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM into the water supply of nine West Virginia counties and calling on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to continue water distribution to residents. About 15 officers from the State and Capitol police forces kept an eye on the approximately 15 protesters.

Read the report: http://www.southce.org/ajwhelton/CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The flushing of home plumbing systems recommended by state officials and West Virginia American Water after the January Elk River chemical leak had only "mixed effectiveness," according to preliminary findings by an expert hired by the Tomblin administration.

A team led by University of South Alabama environmental engineer Andrew Whelton reported this week on problems with the guidance and potentially related exposures to the chemical Crude MCHM from the Freedom Industries leak.

Results from some home testing conducted by Whelton's team before being hired by the state "implied that first flush had mixed effectiveness" on removing the chemical from plumbing systems.

Whelton said Friday that, at some homes, one round of flushing reduced MCHM levels to below the 10-parts-per-billion detection limit. At other homes, flushing did not reduce MCHM levels and, at others, chemical levels were reduced but still remained greater than 10 parts per billion, Whelton said.

Preliminary results of that work were presented Wednesday during a scientific seminar at the University of New Orleans and later posted on the Whelton team's website.

The presentation described the Jan. 9 leak of MCHM into the drinking-water source for 300,000 West Virginians as the "largest drinking water chemical contamination in U.S. history."

"The incident was and remains unprecedented," said the presentation.

In early February, amid public pressure about the chemical leak's impacts, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin hired Whelton to conduct home testing to determine if chemicals from the leak had remained inside homes after the state-advised flushing process was complete.

Whelton and his team already had been working in West Virginia, and later received a National Science Foundation grant to further their efforts.

The presentation this week focused on data from their initial work from Jan. 16-22 in West Virginia. Whelton's team visited 16 homes, where they conducted more-detailed work. The presentation said the results released so far are not part of the state-funded research, dubbed the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project, or WVTAP.

Among other things, the new report emphasizes that Whelton's team confirmed that home plumbing systems vary. They found that more than one type of piping material was present in nearly a third of the homes they visited. They found copper, galvanized iron and plastic piping, all of which could interact differently with chemicals such as MCHM.

Starting four days after the leak, water company officials and the state government told residents to run their hot water for 15 minutes, their cold water for 5 minutes and outside faucets for 5 minutes, to flush any chemicals from their homes.

State officials have said their goal was to ensure that any MCHM in water supplies was below a concentration of 1 part per million. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scrambled in the hours after the leak to come up with that number as a public-health screening level, but outside experts have questioned the CDC's methods and whether agency officials had enough information about the chemical to make such a judgment.

Even after flushing their plumbing systems, though, some resident complained that the licorice-like odor of MCHM remained in their homes and in their water.

Nearly half of the residents interviewed by Whelton's team reported experiencing some health symptoms after tap-water exposure. Residents reported nausea, dizziness, rashes, headaches and burning eyes, among other things. None of those interviewed by Whelton's team sought medical attention, though. Whelton said this indicates the state's publicized numbers for potential health impacts -- based on hospital visits -- did not capture everyone who could have been experiencing chemical reactions.

In their presentation, Whelton's team reported that some residents they talked to might not have correctly followed the flushing guidance issued by the state and the water company. Some residents, for example, flushed by running all of their home faucets at once.

The presentation noted that MCHM vaporizes faster in hot water than in cold, and questioned if potential inhalation exposures to residents were considered in the development of the flushing guidance.

"Chemicals volatilized from tap water into poorly ventilated rooms," the presentation said. "Some bathrooms had nonfunctioning ventilation fans and no windows."

As part of independent flushing guidance his team issued, Whelton advised residents to flush one room at a time, open windows when doing so, and use some sort of ventilation fans to help avoid inhaling chemical fumes.

Federal officials had encouraged the state government to advise residents to flush their home plumbing systems until they no longer smelled the licorice odor, but the state declined to follow that federal recommendation.

Earlier this week, in a letter appealing the denial of additional Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for the water crisis, Tomblin acknowledged that concerns about MCHM in the water supply continued, even after the state-advised "flushing" of the system was completed.

"Even after flushing procedures were implemented, there were surges in chemical presence in various areas, requiring more testing," the governor said in a letter to FEMA. "Because of the strong odor of the chemical, the water was objectionable long after the spill was contained.

"Accordingly, testing continued, and still continues, at significant expense to the state and local agencies," the governor wrote. "This testing was necessary to lessen the immediate threats to public health and safety posed by the mass exposure to a relatively unknown chemical."

Tomblin said additional federal funds are needed for a variety of purposes, including continued water sampling and testing.

"Our ongoing response to the spill, continuous studies, and test results will serve as future guidance not only for exposure to the specific chemical involved in the spill, but for any water system contamination in the nation," the governor wrote. "The work we are funding will fill a void in the scientific and public health knowledge base with much-needed information."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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