(CNN) — Tap water testing in 10 homes in West Virginia found a chemical that leaked from an industrial storage facility in January was still in the water supply a month later, though at levels within the state’s allowable threshold.
On January 9, a chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, was discovered leaking from a storage tank into the Elk River and from there into Charleston’s water supply. The licorice-like smell of the chemical — which is used to clean coal — alerted residents to the contamination and led to a do-not-use order for 300,000 West Virginians, some of whom could not drink or bathe in their water for more than a week.
“Water is continually flowing through the system and it’s cleaning it out,” said Andrew Whelton, a professor at the University of South Alabama and a leader of an independent testing group. “But clearly the evidence exists that chemicals still remain in the drinking water.”
At the state’s request, Whelton’s group independently sampled tap water in 10 homes February 11-18 from the affected area, finding concentrations as high as 6.1 parts per billion, and as low as 0.5 parts per billion.
While the chemical was detected in all 10 homes, each home was sampled multiple times, and some samples showed levels below the detectible level of 0.5 parts per billion.
There has been no testing in people’s homes since February, but Whelton recently told CNN that today “levels are likely much lower than they were” at the time of that testing.
Whelton’s group will convene a panel of experts on April 1 to discuss whether West Virginia’s threshold of 10 parts per billion is adequately safe.
“The latest data we have through our survey is up to March 1, and what we found was 5% or less (of residents) are actually using the water,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County health departments, said Friday. “And that’s matched anecdotally, when you go out into the community, ask people — there’s very few people relatively speaking two and a half months down the road actually using the water.”
Little is known about the health effects of the chemical, which is used to wash coal before market to reduce ash. There are no studies of human consumption.
The spill was originally estimated at about 7,500 gallons, but Freedom Industries, owner of the facility where the leak occurred, said in late January that about 10,000 gallons of chemical had escaped. The company also told regulators that a second chemical — a mix of polyglycol ethers, known as PPH — was part of the leak.
Officials lifted the do-not-use order later in January, saying the chemical was found at very low levels. But some weren’t so sure, especially since they said they smelled odd odors. Whelton’s testing confirmed a licorice or a sweet smell in some of the samples.
“People should be concerned that this chemical was not present before, and it is present now, and there needs to be answers as to why the odors remain and what’s causing those odors,” said Whelton.
An independent water test conducted in February at CNN’s request found trace levels of MCHM in untreated river water and in tap water from two homes in Charleston. The amounts ranged from less than 0.5 parts per billion to 1.6 parts per billion, well below the 1 part per million that the CDC has said it considers unlikely to be associated with any adverse health effects.
In the wake of the spill, Gupta said in February, two waves of patients sought treatment from private doctors and 10 emergency rooms in a nine-county area for nonspecific symptoms such as rash, nausea, vomiting and cough.
The first peak — about 250 patients — occurred in the first three days after the spill was reported on January 9, he said in February.
A lull ensued during the several days of the do-not-use advisory, followed by a second peak — about the same number — during the first few days after the advisory was lifted on January 13, he said.
The adverse symptoms seem to have all but stopped, Gupta said Friday.
Gupta acknowledged in February that his findings were “nonscientific” and that he did not know what the baseline incidence would be of patients appearing at an ER with such symptoms, but said the anecdotes point to the need for further studies.
He has called for a long-term study to be carried out “in a manner able to capture any long-term impact.”
But the West Virginia Poison Center said in a posting on February 10 that some symptoms, such as nausea and headaches, may not indicate that the chemicals were harmful.
“These symptoms are not due to toxic effects but are a body’s physical and real response to unusual smells/tastes,” it said, adding that the poison center received calls from more than 1,900 patients reporting chemical exposures related to the drinking water in the days after the spill was reported.
“Most reported symptoms included mild rashes and reddened skin from dermal exposure, or GI distress (nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea) from ingesting contaminated water. The symptoms tended to be mild and self-limiting.”
A spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water Co. said in February the company was continuing to flush the system to get rid of pockets of licorice smell that remain. “For us, it’s not over until we resolve the odor issue,” said Maureen Duffy.
On March 21 and 22, the company tested water going into and coming out of the water treatment facility, and did find MCHM in the water leaving the facility, though at levels below 1 part per billion, officials there said.
Company officials said they will be changing their 16 filters, scheduled to begin next week. The process will take eight weeks to complete, according to the utility company.
“Until they change the filters … we’re not going to use the water at all,” says Jacquelyn Bevan, a local resident. “We haven’t used it since day 1.”
Dr. Tanja Popovic, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, said February 5 that repeated testing had shown the water to be acceptable for all uses.
“What I can say is that with all the scientific evidence that we have, with everything that numerous people have worked on so far, I can say that you can use your water however you like,” Popovic said. “You can drink it; you can bathe in it; you can use it how you like.”