CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A researcher at West Virginia University says preliminary data shows flushing did not change MCHM levels in the tap water in four homes, all of which were located in the nine county area where a do-not-use water order was issued following a Jan. 9 leak of crude MCHM and PPH along the Elk River.
Dr. Jennifer Weidhaas, with WVU’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, lead a team that tested hot and cold lines along with exterior lines at the homes before and after the flushing protocol West Virginia American Water Company prescribed last month when individual water zones were cleared to resume regular water usage.
“It (MCHM) was detectable in all cases, both the cold and hot water lines, and, unfortunately, the flushing campaign was as not effective at reducing those concentrations as I think (West Virginia) American Water wanted them to do,” said Weidhaas.
All of the MCHM levels in the homes tested, Weidhass noted, fell below the one part per million “safe” standard the Centers for Disease Control established both before and after flushing.
She said there could be any number of reasons why the levels of crude MCHM were higher, in some cases, in the tested homes after the three part flushing process — a recommendation to run hot faucets for 15 minutes, cold faucets for five minutes and exterior faucets for five minutes.
“They could have pulled slightly higher concentration water to their houses as they were flushing, given how different people started to flush their houses during the day,” explained Weidhaas. “Certain folks closer to the treatment plant may have flushed after folks that were farther away from the treatment plant.”
Weidhaas is one of three scientists using $150,000 in emergency grant funding from the National Science Foundation to study the health effects of MCHM, the coal processing chemical that was being stored in the leaky tank at Freedom Industries. Up to now, the chemical has only been tested on rats.
In addition to Weidhaas’ work to assess the extent of contamination in the drinking water, Andrew Whelton from the University of South Alabama is looking at the chemical’s absorption into drinking water pipes, especially those in homes, while Andrea Dietrich from Virginia Tech is examining the environmental effects of MCHM.
In the coming months, Weidhaas said all of those involved will be working to, first, determine exposure levels to MCHM by mapping that exposure and, second, establish the actual toxic effects of the compound.
“Given the magnitude of this disaster and the number of people who were exposed, at this point, the researchers need to pick up the ball and answer different questions that an emergency responder, who’s currently down in Charleston, doesn’t have the time to answer,” Weidhaas said on Wednesday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”
“The emergency responders and the CDC are going off the best information we have to date and now we need to fill in the gap, in the next few months, to determine, yes, that was an acceptable level or not.”
Weidhaas continued, “We have to, at some point, trust in the science that’s already there. I have to give credit to (West Virginia) American Water and the state folks down there, they’re doing the best they can in an extremely difficult position,” she said.
Officials with the National Science Foundation have called the Elk River chemical leak “one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century.”