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CDC survey says one-fifth of residents reported health issues after spill

By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer

A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says more than one-fifth of households surveyed in the Kanawha Valley reported health effects that residents believed were related to toxic exposure following the January chemical leak from the Freedom Industries facility on the Elk River.

Like previous reports, the new CDC data says that most of the health effects involved rashes and skin irritation, with smaller numbers reporting respiratory illnesses, nausea or diarrhea. More than half of the households that reported any symptoms said they did not seek medical attention. Most residents said the problems were not serious enough, though some said they were concerned about the costs of treatment.

The CDC findings also supported the results of a Kanawha-Charleston Health Department survey, which found that as late as April, only about a third of area residents had resumed drinking tap water provided by West Virginia American Water’s regional treatment and distribution system.

Department of Health and Human Resources officials released the 66-page CDC report Monday afternoon. It shows the results of what the CDC calls a Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response, or CASPER. In this case, the CDC interviewed members of 171 area households to gather information about the leak’s impacts.

Loretta Haddy, director of the DHHR’s Office of Epidemiology and Prevention Services, said the CDC report “further supports the need for additional studies to determine the long-term effects of MCHM on humans.” Legislation passed in the months after the Jan. 9 leak, which contaminated drinking water for 300,000 area residents, requires the DHHR’s Bureau for Public Health to conduct a long-term health study and to seek federal help in performing that work.

The CDC said that 21.7 percent of households across the region reported health effects reported by residents to be related to the leak. The agency’s report said that, given the methodology of its survey, researchers were 95 percent certain that number was between a range from 14.4 percent to 28.9 percent.

The report said the number of households drinking tap water could have ranged from 26.6 percent to 40.4 percent. CDC officials found that about 36.1 percent of households, or a possible range of between 27.8 percent and 44.4 percent, believe their tap water is “safe” since the “Do Not Use” order was lifted.

“It is important to note that we do not know baseline prevalence of drinking WVAW water before the chemical leak,” the CDC report said. “However, we do know that the majority thought WVAW water was safe before the chemical leak and less than half think it is safe since the ‘Do Not Use’ order has been lifted.”

The CDC report recommended that the state “increase community education on current water safety to help alleviate consumer concerns.”

Two weeks ago, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he had no immediate plans to follow the recommendation of his own team of experts that the state conduct a larger project to test home tap water supplies to determine if any MCHM from the leak remained in home plumbing systems.

Tomblin said he would consider such testing if additional studies determine there are specific long-term health threats from exposure to the coal-cleaning chemical. The governor said he will continue to ask the federal government to conduct animal-exposure studies to see if MCHM poses any long-term health threat.

The governor has noted that the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project’s initial work — which included, among other things, extensive testing of water in 10 homes — cost the state more than $750,000, and officials have noted that any further testing programs would be subject to state bidding rules. WVTAP was hired without any bidding, because the state brought it in during an official state of emergency.

“We’ve spent a lot of money,” Tomblin said. “The federal government needs to step in. It would be a very expensive proposition for the state of West Virginia.”

WVTAP did not include a cost estimate in its report proposing testing of water in more than 700 homes. WVTAP leader Jeff Rosen later said the project could cost between $2.5 million and $3 million. “I think that if this is put out to bid that they may get lower bids, but I would be concerned that bidders may not understand the total costs of doing a program of this type,” Rosen said in an email message.

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


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