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Weeks Later, More Questions Than Answers In W.Va. Chemical Spill

NPR icon by Daniel Zwerdling
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Steve Helber

State officials in West Virginia say they can no longer detect any of the industrial chemical that spilled recently, called MCHM, in most areas.

They say based on federal guidelines, the water is safe for people to drink and use; including most pregnant women. But other public health specialists say they don't trust those assurances.

One of those specialists is Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the Kanawha Charleston Health Department, the largest public health department in West Virginia. Gupta is in charge of protecting 250,000 people whose water was affected by the spill.

When asked if he felt confident that federal health officials know what levels of these chemicals are safe or not, Gupta says that question was "debatable."

"I think there's no way to know what the safe levels of the chemicals are at this point," he says.

In fact, Gupta says his own family doesn't trust the water supply — no matter what federal and state officials say. Gupta and his wife, who is also a physician, have two teenaged sons. He says the water in their home still has that chemical smell of licorice.

"They have decided not to drink the water at this time," Gupta says. "I have personally tried to drink the water. The smell just ... prevents me from drinking the water, unfortunately."

Too Many Known Unknowns

It has been more than three weeks since the chemicals spilled into the drinking water in West Virginia, and public health specialists in government, in universities and in public interest groups say there are still more troubling questions than answers about whether the spill might affect public health.

Not to mention the fact that no one knows for sure exactly which chemicals, and how much, really spilled. The company first said it was 5,000 gallons of MCHM, and then they said more like 7,500. Now they're saying it probably was more like 10,000 gallons. Plus, it turns out another chemical leaked too, called PPH.

"It feels a bit like a Keystone Cops episode, where one crazy thing is followed by another," says Richard Denison, a toxicologist at the Environmental Defense Fund. He's served on advisory boards for the federal government and for the chemicals industry.

Denison says to consider that just one day after the spill, officials at the national Centers for Disease Control proclaimed that the water was safe. Well, they didn't exactly call the water "safe," but Vikas Kapil, the CDC's chief medical officer in charge of environmental health, said at one part per million of MCHM that "we believe that at exposures below that level, we would not expect any adverse health affects."

So Denison and other health specialists asked the CDC how they came up with the one part per million figure. The CDC took days to answer, but they finally said that they based it on a rat study done back in 1990 at Eastman Kodak.

"I was really shocked," Denison says. He says that study does not suggest that one part per million is safe.

A Dubious Study

When Lynn Goldman heard the news, she was also dismayed.

"That study wouldn't have been enough to come up with a definitive number that would say, 'one part per million, that's a safe number,'" Goldman says.

Goldman is dean of public health at George Washington University and used to run the toxic chemicals division at the Environmental Protection Agency. Goldman says Eastman's study was a good step toward trying to understand how MCHM affects people, since federal laws don't even require companies to study how most chemicals affect people.

But Goldman says Eastman's study is seriously limited, because the study looked only at how MCHM might affect adults, in this case by testing it on grown rats. The researchers didn't consider how the chemical might affect fetuses or newborns. And Goldman says history shows that a lot of chemicals don't hurt adults, but wreak havoc on the young. So would she use the water in West Virginia today?

"I think if I could still smell or taste the substance in the water, I wouldn't use the water," she says.

The CDC's website does say that "few studies on this specialized chemical exist." The CDC's Vikas Kapil says the data simply isn't available.

"There are many circumstances in which we of course would like to have more information about human toxicologic evaluations [and] additional animal studies ... we simply don't have that kind of data available," he says.

The CDC website adds: "If you have any concerns, please consult your doctor."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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