CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The health effects of the Jan. 9 Freedom Industries chemical spill on the Elk River appear more widespread than first indicated.
New estimates show between 92,000 and 108,000 residents experienced health effects from the spill of crude MCHM and PPH into the source water for West Virginia American Water Company’s Kanawha Valley water treatment plant.
Those estimates, released this week, come from the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and Dr. Andrew Whelton, a University of South Alabama environmental engineer who is now part of the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project (WV-TAP).
“We saw the two symptom peaks on Jan. 9 and one starting again on Jan. 13 that sort of coincided with the flushing that people were told to do,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, the chief health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
“Anecdotally, that’s what we were seeing, but we wanted to make sure there’s science and research behind it before we start raising the alarm.”
Officials with the state Department of Health and Human had previously cited 26 hospital admissions tied to the spill while hundreds of others were treated and released from hospitals in the nine affected counties.
Gupta said the new numbers, based on data from local physicians, show those initial numbers were misleading about the health impact of the spill because not everyone who was affected went to the hospital or even sought medical treatment for symptoms like burning eyes, itchy hands or difficulty breathing.
“This was an event where, let’s say, people washed their hands (in the water), got a rash, quit washing their hands for a few days, the rash went away and, after that, the chemical fell tremendously down from levels in the drinking water,” Gupta said.
“So, a lot of these symptoms, as we described, they may not have been something that took people to the hospital.” However, Gupta said those were health effects tied to the spill: “It’s important to start assessing the larger public health impact and try to get our arms around it in order to, sort of, help the recovery process.”
Gupta, who was a guest on Tuesday’s edition of MetroNews “Talkline,” was also scheduled to discuss the findings as part of a presentation on “Learning from the Elk River Chemical Spill” during a webinar for the National Association for City and County Health Officials on Tuesday afternoon.
An advocate for long-term health surveillance in the areas affected by the spill, Gupta said data from separate surveys through the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and the state Department of Health and Human Resources, expected to be released later this year, will deepen the understanding of the spill’s impact.
“I think it’s important to not point fingers, but to work together to solve the problems we’ve had, and we’re going to be looking at in the future to just make sure that everybody gets taken care of.”