West Virginia water supply safe again following contamination

January 21st, 2014

Residents of West Virginia can breathe a sigh of relief now that West Virginia American Water has lifted the “do not drink” order for its customers. Dangerous chemicals leaked into the water system Jan. 9, leaving many people in West Virginia without safe water.

Once the chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, was found in the water systems, some 300,000 residents of Kanawha County, W. Va., were advised to avoid drinking and bathing in the contaminated water, according to CNN.

While the chemical, which is used to clean coal and is often referred to as MCHM, is not lethal, it could have negative health effects. Until now, it wasn’t considered a very high-profile chemical and symptoms are mostly skin and eye irritation. Residents of the area relied on bottled water, although bottled water supplies were selling out due to the high demand.

The chemical leak stemmed from a site operated by a chemical company known as Freedom Industries.

According to the LA Times, the inspectors uncovered that Freedom Industries did not report the leak to the state Department of Environmental Protection nor did they do anything to halt the leak. The LA Times also added that there are “no regulations governing inspection and maintenance of the storage tanks.” This revelation came as an outrage the mayor of Charleston, W. Va., Danny Jones, who stated that “somebody needs to go to jail.”

While this was not the first incident of a chemical spill in West Virginia, the tanks were last inspected by The Department of Environmental Protection in 1999. At this time, the tanks were operated by an oil company and generated various oil products. Department spokesman Tom Aluise stated that the tanks are no longer inspected because they do not hold material that could be considered hazardous.

Pregnant women, specifically, were warned not to drink or bathe in the contaminated water.

The state commissioner for the Bureau for Public Health, Letitia Tierney, said that “Fetal cells are continuing to develop, which is why pregnant women have been encouraged to continue drinking bottled water until there are no longer detectable levels of MCHM in the water distribution system.”

While the “do not drink” ban has been lifted, people are still unconvinced the water is safe. Nitro, W. Va. resident Larence Armstrong said in a report to CNN, “If they’re saying that they don’t want pregnant ladies to drink the water, hey, I’m not going to drink it.” He also stated that he and his wife will continue to drink bottled water and using a garden hose to shower.

There have been some incidents reported since the water was deemed safe to use once again. Dr. Tierney said that some residents were complaining of skin redness and irritation after showering with the now safe-water. She explained that these symptoms won’t last.

“Once things settle down, these symptoms will go away,” Tierney said. “The minor symptoms that people are facing are due to the sediment in the water tanks that was agitated by the flushing in the water systems.”

Editor’s Note: Information from The Los Angeles Times and CNN was used in this report.