Dustin White, of Boone County West Virginia, turned on the tap water one morning this week to find orange, chemical-smelling water pouring into his sink. White filled a bottle with the orange liquid and brought it to Charleston, the state capital, on Jan. 30. When he tried to enter the capitol building, however, security escorted him out, promising to arrest him if he tried to enter again with the bright colored liquid.
Delegate Mike Manypenny, after talking to security, stepped outside and took the bottle from White, promising that it would be sent to the Board of Public Health for a full chemical analysis. This has been one recent water-related problem of many for the West Virginia area.
On Jan. 9 this year, an estimated 7,500 gallons of coal processing chemicals from the company Freedom Industries spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River. 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) was the major chemical involved. MCHM can cause headaches, rashes and vomiting, among other symptoms. Loose regulations and a lack of government oversight meant that large chemical tanks were allowed to sit next to a major water source. The contamination resulted in a massive water shutdown. Approximately 300,000 West Virginians had to shut off their tap water for five to 10 days until the water system was cleaned up and flushed out.
Water company officials begin lifting the ban starting on Jan. 13, advising residents to run their faucets for several minutes in order to push the old water through first. Many, though, are still complaining about a distinctive, chemical black-licorice smell in their water, especially when they use hot water.
The EPA has said that flushing the system could take two to three weeks, not 10 to 15 minutes as state officials and water companies have been recommending. Scott Simonton, an environmental scientist at Marshall University, weighs in, saying that chemicals are sticking to pipes, rather than flushing through. “We know the stuff is sticking,” he said.
West Virginians had another chemical scare several days ago when the state warned residents that they might be inhaling formaldehyde while showering with affected water. Formaldehyde is a colorless gas that, at a high enough concentration, can cause a burning sensation, trigger allergic reactions, and is a likely carcinogen, according to the EPA.
The formaldehyde was discovered by Simonton, who took a water sample from a popular Charleston restaurant. The original chemical spill of MCHM can break down and form into formaldehyde. “This stuff is breaking down into formaldehyde in the shower or in the water system, and they’re inhaling it,’’ Simonton warned.
Dr. Letitia Tierney, state commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health, disagreed with Simonton about the origins of the formaldehyde. “Our experts are all in agreement that it’s unlikely that his findings are in any way related to the chemical spill. It’s already in our environment.” Formaldehyde is naturally present in the human body in very small amounts. If it is present in soil and water in large enough concentrations, though, this could indicate contamination issues even greater than what officials have already recognized. Simonton’s sample registered at 32 ppb; the CDC grades the irritation risk of formaldehyde as “low” at 10 ppb, and “medium” at 100 ppb.
Beyond creating a week-long health crisis in the state and causing many to wonder whether or not the government even cares about residents’ health in the face of big business interests, the chemical spill has had a detrimental effect on the local economy, as restaurants, shops, and other businesses had to shut down because of the water ban. “It’s caused us more problems than you could ever imagine,” said Danny Jones, Charleston’s mayor.