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.”