CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Bureau of Public Health and West Virginia American Water Company dismissed comments made Wednesday by a Marshall University professor who said formaldehyde has been found in the water in downtown Charleston.

Scott Simonton, a professor and vice chairman of the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board, warned state lawmakers the  cancer-causing chemical is a  breakdown product of MCHM, the chemical that leaked into the Elk River from the Freedom Industries site in Charleston on Jan. 9.

“Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen and where it’s most toxic is inhalation,” Simonton said. “I can guarantee you the citizens of this valley are at least in some instances breathing formaldehyde. Taking a hot shower, this stuff is breaking down, formaldehyde, in the shower, in the water system and they are inhaling it.”

West Virginia American Water issued a statement Wednesday night saying Simonton was “misleading and irresponsible” to voice his opinion without all of the facts.

Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau of Public Health, also shot down Simonton’s comments as “totally unfounded and does not speak to the health and safety of West Virginians.”

Simonton said the formaldehyde situation is a “huge cause for concern” and points toward support of long-term monitoring of residents in the water emergency area affected by Freedom Industries. The spill touched off a water emergency that has impacted approximately 300,000 state residents in nine counties.

Simonton said he found formaldehyde while testing the water at a Charleston restaurant in the days after the water contamination. He was testing for a law firm.

West Virginia American Water’s statement also said:

“Procedures for water analysis are carefully prescribed, outlined and certified. West Virginia American Water will continue working with governmental health and environmental professionals and, in conjunction with these professionals, we and public health agencies will make public any reliable, scientifically sound information relating to risks to public health, if any.”

Professor Simonton told lawmakers he was “a little freaked out” by his test results.

“Somebody said ‘just because you can smell it doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.’ They don’t have that data. Nobody has that data,” Simonton said. “We don’t know the inhalation risks on MCHM. We don’t know what the odor threat threshold is on MCHM.”

West Virginia DEP Secretary Randy Huffman told the Charleston Daily Mail Wednesday he was not aware of formaldehyde being linked to the water emergency.

“That doesn’t mean there’s not, we’re just not aware of it,” Huffman told the newspaper.  “I absolutely don’t want to downplay the significance for the potential of formaldehyde in anyway. If it’s there, it needs to be dealt with.”

Simonton told lawmakers the bottom line is there’s so much not known about MCHM and how it reacts in the environment.

“This is a population that has been exposed and we don’t know to what extent,” he said.

Dr. Tierney also said:

“Subject matter experts who have been assisting West Virginia through this entire emergency response state that the only way possible for formaldehyde to come from MCHM is if it were combusted at 500F.

“The World Health Organization (WHO) states formaldehyde is the most frequent aldehyde found in nature and is naturally measurable in air and water. Formaldehyde is created through the normal breakdown cycle of plants and animals. Formaldehyde dissolves easily in water and does not last a long time in water.

“Additionally, formaldehyde is naturally produced in very small amounts in our bodies as a part of our normal, everyday metabolism and causes no harm. It can also be found in the air that we breathe at home and at work, in the food we eat, and in some products that we put on our skin.

“Formaldehyde is found in many products used every day around the house such as antiseptics, medicines, cosmetics, dish-washing liquids, fabric softeners, shoe-care agents, carpet cleaners, glues and adhesives, lacquers, paper, plastics, and some types of wood products.

“We are unaware of the specifics of how this study was conducted, including sampling procedures, protocol and methodology, and would also be interested in the possibility of some other issue affecting the testing of water at the establishment indicated.

“Everyone has been affected by this water crises and public health is of the utmost importance. Mr. Simonton’s has not been part of the integral team of water testing officials from numerous state, local and private agencies working non-stop since January 9. His opinion is personal but speaks in no official capacity.”

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  • William

    Friendly public service announcement for those who are concerned about the formaldehyde from the MCHM spill:

    You consume formaldehyde on a daily basis. When you consume methanol, which is common in many fruits including tomatoes, formaldehyde will be created when cells of your body metabolizes it. The human body quickly metabolizes formaldehyde into harmless products, even when inhaled. Also, it's commonly produced from combustion; including forest fires, car exhaust, and tobacco.

    Formaldehyde is naturally present in fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, coffee, and alcoholic beverages. Most formaldehyde inhaled by humans is quickly exhaled.

    Don't fall for the fear mongering of a lone environmental scientist.

    • John Pignato

      If carcinogenic additions come from tap water via contact, ingestion and inhalation are you saying that is unavoidable ? So, just give up ? Ignore it ? Live with it ? Pooh-pooh it ?

      Is that the professional thing to do ? Is it the political thing to do ?

    • John Pignato

      Is minimizing additional carcinogenic risks from a new source responsible ?

      Can you say than any additional carcinogenic load is safe ? A good idea ? Can be safely ignored ?

    • Greg

      Seeing as Mr. Simonton is Vice Chairman of the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board, I don't think he was speaking to the joint legislative investigating committee as a lone [or rogue as you imply] environmental scientist.


        Come now Greg, it's not like he's Al Gore or someone..

        • Mason County Contrarian

          Had the prof been from another institution, I don't think the reaction would have been so harsh. This was, as such, attacking the message because no one liked the messenger.


      • Ed

        Greg, u r right. But perhaps he was seeking attention.......

  • The bookman

    The most important piece of information is missing. At what concentration? If the chemist neglected to provide it, and the committee neglected to demand it, they should be held accountable for their inflammatory remarks. How insensitive to create even more questions in the minds of an already insecure public concerned about the purity of their water.


      Hmm, on second thought, maybe he is someone like Al Gore.

  • tw eagle

    there is a needed clean up past the all clear on water testing . . . what might have "settled" into the river bed ? coring areas & maybe dredging . . . why not grab the Freedoms check book , tell the water companies they have an open account to spend whatever it will take to relocate their water intakes above the Frontier facility far enough not to be affected by any "fallout". . .

    • thornton

      Never let a disaster go to waste to promote a greater agenda, eh?

      Coring?, Dredging?. No wonder this country is headed downhill in so many measures...commonsense, no longer is common to enough folks.

      Hopefully, the ambulance chasers do help those actually negatively affected by the spill....and the rest out to get sumpin' for nuttin', let Karma sort 'em out.

  • Not an easily panicked citizen

    I'm a bit skeptical as to the severity of this concern. The Environmental Scientist, which is not the same as a chemist, states that formaldehyde is a breakdown product of MCHM, yet I can't find anything that confirms this other than media outlets parroting this story.

    Even if it were true, Formaldehyde, also known as methanal (CH20), is a common bi-product of burning methane, gasoline, and tobacco. The trade amounts that come from this, and the amount from the chemical spill (again, if true), is harmless.

    The kind of Formaldehyde most people think of, the smelly chemical used in preservation, is actually amixture of methanal, methanol, water, and misc. impurities.

    • Larry

      I agree, it's hard to get too excited over something "alarming" some liberal member of academia says.

      • Uncle Unctuous

        Better to listen to the soothing tones of a conservative member of [Freedom] Industry, eh?

    • tw eagle

      you sound like a member of the Board for Freedom industries . . . hey , the waters clear now . . . let's get back to business and forget this ever happened . . .

  • Informed

    Formaldehyde also is found in artificial sweetners and settles in your joints. So if you drink a lot of diet sodas, you probably have aching knees and hips. Most Americans are so full of formaldehyde that when they die the funeral homes don't need to use much more in embalming. So, if anyone in the Valley is truly concerned about the amount of formaldehyde they are drinking, give up the diet pop and artificial sweetners.

    • Not an easily panicked citizen

      You're obviously not informed in regards to chemistry.
      One, Formaldehyde is produced in the breakdown of methanol, regardless of its source. You'll get more methanol in your digestive system from a tomato than any Aspartame package (which is the only artificial sweetener that uses Methanol)

      Two, The human body is capable of processing and disposing of Formaldehyde when in small amounts, just like anything that's harmful in large doses. Only in cases of prolonged methanol poisoning could warrant concern about Formaldehyde levels, but by then, you have much more to worry about.

  • leroy jethro gibbs

    gee i didnt know we had all these experts on the forum, i wouldnt take the word of a scientist they bring up things like global warming and stuff, what a bunch of idiots!
    if i lived in charleston i would be mad as hell!
    what else is going to show up in the water, cant wait for the next shoe to fall!

    • wvtd

      yea, it sure has been hot lately.

  • Sdobbs

    Democratic Gov sitting in WV from 1976-1984.... A huge coal supporter.

  • Serenity Firefly

    While I am conivinced that there may be additional, unidentified toxins in water being piped to Charleston,WV and surrounding areas, I also want to think critically about the implications of possible contaminants. There may be newer information available (please post if so), but this excerpt about formaldehyde from the World Health Organization seems to minimize the risk of inhalation exposure from showering.

    I am grateful that people with expertise in science and our environment are working to evaluate the situation in West Virginia. I hope that you will continue to share your findings.

    --quoted material follows--
    12.64 Formaldehyde
    Formaldehyde occurs in industrial effluents and is emitted into air from plastic materials and resin glues. Formaldehyde in drinking-water results primarily from the oxidation of natural organic matter during ozonation and chlorination. Concentrations of up to 30mg/litre have been found in ozonated drinking-water. Formaldehyde can also be found in drinking-water as a result of release from polyacetal plastic fittings.

    Formaldehyde’s physicochemical properties suggest that it is unlikely to volatilize from water, so exposure by inhalation during showering is expected to be low.

    (excerpt from at page 377)

  • Jephre

    Formaldehyde is also used in embalming fluid.

    • BigMo

      Kill us with the water and embalm us at the same time. Knock the funeral homes out of god I'm mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!

  • H2o

    simple Q. Is it totally impossible for the 'testers' to take some samples and say we know we're supposed to have these chemicals in our water and THEN identify those that should NOT be in water and let us know. Why is that so complicated?

    • Hillboy

      H2o, It would be prohibitively expensive to test for everything that shouldn't be in the water. Water systems are required to test for about 100 different chemicals now. And the frequency at which they are required to test for those varies depending on the chemical. There are only a few things they can test for on a continuous basis, such as pH and conductivity, etc.

      There are tens of thousands of different manmade chemicals that are being produced and used that could be released into the environment. There is no way to test for all of them on a regular basis.

      • H2o

        Thanks hill boy, I guess I digress and recall going through 9/11 and recall the things we were told to be more aware of things and water supply was one of the biggest targets to keep an eye on. God help us if a terrorist should decide to pay us a visit. I guess it depends on who the 'terrorist' is....

    • Michael

      +4 (me and all my family members)

  • Teddy

    I was worried when I first read this article but then I remembered it was a scientiest from Marshall U. Really, how much credibility can he have if he is employed at this school? It's not like he was a scientist from Harvard, Yale, or Southeast Mississippi Valley State Tech.

    • Josh

      We need someone tied to the wvu/Milan Puskar degree scandal to speak out to really be sure if this is a problem or not.

      • Whip

        That's a good one...ole mojo's daughter got one for free.

    • Concerned citizen

      Really....a scientist is a scientist no matter what school they are emplyeed at. I would think you would be concerned with the water situation instead of what school the scientist works at.

      • Not an easily panicked citizen

        That's a very very wrong statement. Scientists specialize their field of expertise. An environmental science expert is not the same as a chemist.
        A dental hygienist isn't the same as a heart surgeon, but they're both doctors.

        A scientist who speaks on a field outside their specialty should be scrutinized more so than one that doesn't.

        • Uncle Unctuous

          You should ask some friends to recommend a good dentist, because I feel like you need to see one right away.

        • Gen Kemp

          Comments from another Marshall grad...

          "A dental hygienist isn't the same as a heart surgeon, but they're both doctors."

          Seriously? A dental hygienist is the same as a doctor? The same as a heart surgeon? They are BOTH doctors?

          Please stay in Cabell county. Keep your post-graduate Marshall University ideals out of the mainstream media. Please remove yourself from the internet... before you do, Google "self lobotomy procedure".

        • TheFungoKnows

          A dental hygienist is now a doctor???
          In what universe??

    • cutty77

      Yea I liked The I'm Freaked out Part. I just smoked a Joint,and I read this Man,and I'm Freaked out.What a idiot.

      • cutty77

        I have lived in Kanawha Valley for all my life,about 60 years. I have been in the Elk river,Kanawha River,and the Ohio River. Its hard to tell what i have seen float by and what i have drank too. But that was before there were Laywers on Every Corner of Charleston. All this never scared me in the least either. I took a shower everyday,and washed clothes in it too.And back in The Day might of smoked a Joint or 2. Ole Cutty77 will be ok. This ain't my First Rodeo Chief. lol

      • Charleston

        Thanks for the laugh during these strenuous times! That was hilarious!

  • Paul

    Amd again. . .

    No one, and I mean NO ONE had a clue what Freedom was doing. Had NO CLUE what they were storing. If it was safely stored. Totally clueless.

    On tops of that, our water treatment facillity, located a mile downstream, had NO WAY of testing for any of the chemicals leaked from Freedom.

    Add in that Kent Carper, nor anyone else, had NO PLAN for the public in case of a water emergency.

    Just total bufoons.

  • Paul

    I said yesterday in a comment to another article that anyone trusting this water supply is certifiable insane.

    • Jim

      And your credentials to arriving to this theory?

    • Serenity Firefly

      Sadly agreeing with you.

      When they find a new contaminant, I would like it if they would also advise what methods would make increase/decrease exposure.

      Would charcoal filter help? Boiling off chemicals (is there inhalation risk?), boiling water & leaving the chemicals (distillation)?

      Since I'm going to have to set up water treatment plant in my kitchen, it would help to know what would work.

  • Charleston

    FYI folks: Formaldehyde can be found Trace amounts naturally occur in even organically grown pears, apples, carrots, and tomatoes.

    As per the website (Centers for food safety)
    Foods Known to Contain Naturally Occurring Formaldehyde
    I. Fruits & Vegetables
    Food type
    Level (mg/kg)
    6.3 – 22.3
    Bulb vegetables (e.g. onion)
    6.7 – 10
    2.3 – 3.7
    Green Onion
    13.3 – 26.3
    38.7 – 60
    3.3 – 7.3
    5.7 – 13.3
    White Radish
    3.7 – 4.4
    Shiitake mushroom (dried)
    100 – 406
    Shiitake mushroom (raw)
    6 – 54.4
    II. Meat and meat products
    Food type
    Level (mg/kg)
    5.8 – 20
    2.5 – 5.7
    Processed meat products
    (including ham and sausages)
    ≤ 20.7
    Liver paste
    ≤ 11.9
    Foods Known to Contain Naturally Occurring Formaldehyde (Continued)
    III. Dairy products
    Food type
    Level (mg/kg)
    Goat’s Milk
    Cow’s Milk
    ≤ 3.3
    ≤ 3.3
    IV. Seafood
    Food type
    Level (mg/kg)
    4.6 – 34
    Shrimp (raw)
    1 – 2.4
    Fish ball
    1 – 98
    ≤ 140

    • rose

      Don't you think a naturally occurring substance like formaldehyde in vegetables is a lot safer than a man made chemical that shows up in your water ??

      Also, I can't remember the last time I inhaled my vegetables.

      • Matt

        It's the same thing chemically. Doesn't matter if it's naturally occurring or from the decomposition of a manmade substance. CH2O is CH2O.

      • Charleston

        I am not trying to act as though this is not a huge deal, but from what I have read from various websites a lot of us have been exposed to this organic substance at one point in our lives. For example, Johnson and Johnson just recently changed there formula for baby shampoo due to the fact that it contained formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.

        • Charleston

          You can google the story and read it for yourself. It was just recently posted on the New York Times.

          • Lisa

            I just think that a natural form of formaldehyde in fruites and veggies would be a bit different than inhaling it via a chemical breakdown of MCHM through your shower. Why are there so many acute and chronic effects of it if it's so natural?

          • rose

            I believe you..... I just still can't see how a substance that occurs naturally can compare to a man made chemical.

            And there are so many chemicals in our health and beauty products that who knows what the end result of all those interactions could be.

    • Charleston


  • Former higher ed guy

    Sounds scary. I haven't seen reports by media organization checking with the people who use the MCHM every day in coal processing plants. What precautions do they take? Any reported health hazards? Do we know so little about this chemical because it has such low toxicity?

    • Hillboy

      "MCHM was “grandfathered” in under the existing toxics law, called the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), with almost no toxicity data, and no data required. The law grandfathered some 62,000 chemicals when it came into force in 1976, and did not require that EPA test them for safety or ensure that they met a standard of safety. And the law made it extremely difficult for EPA to require companies to produce data for any of those 62,000 chemicals, which is why nearly 40 years later, so little information on health and environmental effects of most of the chemicals in commerce is available to the public."


      • Charleston

        Thanks for the source!