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Pregnant women told not to drink the water; possible effects on others still unclear

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Pregnant women in parts of the nine West Virginia counties where a do-not-use water order from West Virginia American Water Company was in effect for days are being told not to drink the tap water, even after the order is lifted.

The state Bureau of Public Health issued the new recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control on Wednesday night, three days after the first water customers were cleared to resume regular water usage following a leak of crude MCHM on Jan. 9 that contaminated the water supply.

The CDC said pregnant women should drink bottled water until MCHM is no longer detectable in the water distribution system served by the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant.

Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health, said pregnant women are already instructed to take several extra precautions.

“We ask them not to drink caffeine. We ask them not to drink alcohol. We ask them not to smoke, so we’re just asking them, at this time, to continue to use bottled water or another source of water to drink,” said Tierney.

Dr. Stephen Bush, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology for West Virginia University Physicians of Charleston, said many pregnant women have already been doing so. “We’ve been really telling our patients anyway, from the start, to air on the conservative side and continue to drink the bottled water until everything was completely cleared,” said Bush.

(The state is providing more information for pregnant women impacted by water emergency.)

For everyone else, the CDC maintains the presence of MCHM in the water is safe for human consumption below a threshold of one part per million. WVAW officials said water zones were being cleared for flushing and the resumption of service only after series of tests showed levels consistently below that level.

A week after the Elk River leak, officials said there were still many unanswered questions, though, about the long-term effects of MCHM on humans, even in small amounts.

“As you know, there are few studies on this specialized chemical.  Like many studies done for medical, chemical safety and consumer applications, the only available studies looked at the effects of exposure of animals,” wrote Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC director, in a letter to Karen Bowling, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Resources, this week.

“Therefore, scientists used the available information about 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, MCHM, to calculate how much MCHM a person could likely ingest without resulting in adverse health effects. These calculations use safety factors to take into account the differences between animals and people, and to consider possible effects on special populations.”

Frieden continued, “An additional safety factor was applied to account for the limited availability of data. Based on these safety factors and the available research students, scientists recommended a screening level of one part per million (one ppm) of MCHM in drinking water.”

Epidemiologists with the CDC were scheduled to arrive in Charleston on Thursday.

Tierney, a doctor who lives in the affected region, said she is trusting the CDC numbers and the results of testing from WVAW, the National Guard and others.

“I’m now taking showers in this water. I am drinking this water. I am bathing in this water, so is my family,” she said on MetroNews “Talkline” on Thursday morning. “I understand the concern.”

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