Chemical-Related Hospital Admissions in West Virginia Have Doubled Since Drinking Water Deemed Safe

News & Politics

It took nearly five days after a major chemical spill in West Virginia for residents to receive the go-ahead to start using their water again.

Nearly 7,500 gallons of crude MCHM — a little-known chemical used to wash coal — had leaked into the Elk River on Jan. 9, perplexing state officials on how exactly to get the chemical out of the water and what exactly it would do to people if they used it. It was Jan. 13, a Monday, when the first bans were lifted. As of Saturday, everyone affected by the spill was given the all-clear — water everywhere, state officials said, was now fine to drink.

In a perfect world, that would be the end of the story. But according to statistics released by the state health department on Saturday, it turns out that since the bans on water began being lifted, hospital admissions and calls to the poison control center have doubled. Emergency room visits have nearly tripled.

On Jan. 12, the day before do-not-use orders began being lifted, health department officialscited 10 hospital admissions, 169 people treated and released from the emergency room, and a little more than 1,000 calls to the poison control center.

By Saturday — the same day the final 2 percent of people affected by the spill got their water back — those numbers had increased significantly. According to a report in the Charleston Gazette, health officials said 20 people had been admitted to the hospitals, 411 had been treated and released from the emergency room, and 2,302 had called the poison control center. Of those, 1,862 were human-related, 98 were animal-related and the rest were requests for information only.

Saturday’s numbers were also much greater than Thursday’s numbers, when health officials said only 317 had been treated and 14 had been hospitalized.

Part of the increased hospitalizations and calls may be due to confusion on the part of West Virginia residents, who in the last week have been repeatedly given conflicting information about the spill and whether they should use the water. The “do-not-drink” order finally lifted on Saturday, for example, was in a town that had actually had their ban lifted on Tuesday. On Thursday, however, West Virginia American Water rescinded their statements that the water was safe to drink, after water from a fire hydrant registered chemical levels above the 1-part-per-million (ppm) limit.

It’s not the only instance of conflicting information. On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said pregnant women should not drink water with any amount of the chemical in it, despite West Virginia American Water saying two days earlier that water in some areas was safe to drink.

Chemical levels in the water must be below 1 ppm for human ingestion. But health experts have questioned that logic. Specifically, some are saying that the study being widely used to determine whether the water is safe does not include several chemical components that leached into the water.

“A key corporate study used by federal health officials to set a screening level for ‘crude MCHM’ in the West Virginia American Water system actually tested a pure form of the material’s main ingredient and might not account for potential toxicity of other components,” the Charleston Gazette reported on Friday.

The chemical that is thought to have spilled, crude MCHM, is actually a mixture of chemicals that is used to wash coal of its impurities, explained Evan Hansen, president of Morgantown-based Downstream Strategies, in an interview with Climate Progress’ Kiley Kroh on Saturday. Of those multiple ingredients, only one of them has any information about exposure limits, he said.

“If crude MCHM is truly what leaked, it’s possible that we don’t even know which of this ‘cocktail’ is most harmful,” said Hansen. “We could have set a threshold based on the wrong one. We may be testing the wrong one.”

So far, however, no official diagnoses have been reported linking patients’ symptoms to water exposure.

“As far as the data and recommendations we have from West Virginia American Water, the water is safe to use,” Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said. “We’re not saying it’s safe. West Virginia American Water is saying it’s safe. We are taking their word for it.”

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