Three weeks after the leak, there are still questions about what’s in the water

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Chief Health Officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department said medical monitoring should have already started in the parts of nine West Virginia counties where a Jan. 9 chemical leak made tap water unusable for days.

Dr. Rahul Gupta said 300,000 West Virginians are unwillingly part of the “first live human experiment” of the long-term effects of crude MCHM and PPH, coal processing chemicals.

Up to now, the effects of MCHM have only been tested on rats.

“The idea of medical monitoring, or surveillance, is to make sure that we identify the health effects at an early and, hopefully, at a reversible stage,” said Gupta.  “It is very important and crucial that we have a program, such as this, developed, implemented in a rapid manner at a local level so that we can start to see people.”

More health questions tied to water quality were raised on Wednesday when Dr. Scott Simonton, a Marshall University professor and vice chairman of the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board, told a group of state lawmakers he found formaldehyde while testing water, at the request of an attorney, in downtown Charleston.

Simonton said he believed the formaldehyde was a breakdown product from the crude MCHM that leaked from a tank, belonging to Freedom Industries, into the Elk River, the water source for the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant.  He said formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen and is considered most toxic when it is inhaled.

Gupta said Simonton’s claims should be fully vetted.  “It is very important to make sure that we do the data (research), do the due diligence that’s required before we make statements, clear statements,” he said on Thursday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”

Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health and State Health Officer, agreed.  She said there are many questions about how Simonton conducted his water quality tests.

“Dr. Simonton made comments to the lawmakers that, I feel, only raised concerns and fears to an already anxious population,” she said.  “I understand that there are lots of people who are frustrated about this water incident.”

Tierney said water quality experts, who have been assisting West Virginia through the water emergency response, indicated the only possible way for formaldehyde to come from MCHM would be if it was combusted at 500 degrees.

The World Health Organization said formaldehyde is the aldehyde most frequently found in nature and is naturally measurable in air and water.  Formaldehyde, WHO experts said, is created through the normal breakdown cycle of plants and animals and dissolves easily in water.

The analysts also pointed out formaldehyde is found in products like antiseptics, medicines, cosmetics, dishwashing liquids, fabric softeners, shoe care agents, carpet cleaners, glues and adhesives, lacquers, paper, plastics and some types of wood products.

In a statement issued on Wednesday evening, officials with West Virginia American Water Company said it was “misleading and irresponsible” for someone to voice their opinion without all of the facts.

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