ATLANTA, Ga. — A chief medical officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said Thursday he believes the water in the cleared zones of West Virginia’s water emergency is safe to drink.
Dr. Vikas Kapil, chief medical officer for the CDC National Center for Environmental Health, said he’s basing that decision on the water quality levels he has seen in recent days.
“We stand by the 1-part-per-million guidance and we think that’s not likely to be associated with adverse health effects,” Kapil said during a late afternoon conference call with reporters.
The state turned to the CDC for help last week after 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol—known as crude MCHM—leaked into the Elk River just above West Virginia American Water’s Kanawha Valley plant. That facility provides water to approximately 300,000 residents in parts of nine counties.
The company issued a do-not-use water order following the spill, though in the past three days most customers have been cleared to flush their home systems and begin using the water again.
Kapil confirmed there haven’t been many studies on crude MCHM and he said he could find none on its long-term effects on humans. So he arrived at his calculation of a safe water quality level of 1 part per million from a study on how the chemical affected an animal when that animal ingested it.
“So we use whatever information we do have and we try and use that animal data to take from that what may be exposure levels in humans,” Kapil said.
He admitted the lack of information concerns scientists and the public.
“This is a dynamic and moving event. There are many things happening and we are trying to do our best,” he said. “We certainly do understand that people are concerned. There are uncertainties. There is little known about this material.”
The CDC issued an advisory recommending pregnant women in the nine-county region continue to drink bottled water until the chemical is no longer present in the water system. Kapil said that recommendation was made out of “an abundance of caution,” because there are no reproduction studies on crude MCHM.
While aspects of environmental health are difficult to quantify, Kapil said the CDC carefully assesses the risk to impacted citizens. He stressed the agency is comfortable with the guidance it has given to state health officials.
“We can’t always answer all of the questions that people have—at least not initially—in these kinds of circumstances. We have very carefully looked at the available data. We have applied very significant safety and certainty factors to that. We have a screening level that is not associated with any adverse health effects.”
Allowing the water to be used for drinking and cooking and other things is “perfectly appropriate,” Kapil said.