A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning to pregnant women in West Virginia has raised alarms because officials, relying on the agency’s guidance, had been assuring residents their tapwater was safe after a chemical spill prompted a do-not-use order.
The CDC’s change “resulted in confusion, fear and mistrust,” West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Representative Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, wrote in a letter to the agency yesterday. “People must have confidence that their water supply is safe for use.”
The CDC’s about-face spotlights what critics say is insufficient information about the coal-processing chemical that last week leaked from a Freedom Industries tank on the banks of the Elk River, a few miles upstream from a water intake serving the state capital.
The chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, was exempted from testing under laws that govern toxic substances, because the statutes grandfathered in materials already in use.
Officials at the West Virginia American Water Co. in Charleston said the CDC had told them the water would be safe once the chemical level fell to one part per million, and began clearing parts of a nine-county region they serve in recent days to begin flushing their systems and using their taps.
In a letter dated Jan. 15, the CDC told West Virginia health officials that “Out of an abundance of caution, you may wish to consider an alternative drinking water source for pregnant women.”
The Jan. 9 spill prompted the largest “do not use” order ever issued by West Virginia American Water, affecting 300,000 residents. Service restoration began Jan. 13, with residents told the persistence of a licorice odor or chemical taste was no cause of concern.
As of yesterday, water was cleared for 71,000 homes and businesses — out of 100,000 customer accounts — to use.
“Our water was cleared, but what does that mean?” asked Kathie Giltinan, a Charleston resident, on Jan. 13. “It’s safe because that’s the number they picked to say it was safe.”
Dr. Vikas Kapil, chief medical officer for the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC, told reporters yesterday that the agency established a standard based on limited information. He said it had to rely on just two relevant studies of the chemical, both of which were done on animals.
“There are no studies that we know of that focus on cancer effects or reproductive effects” of the chemical, he said. Water with less than 1 parts per million of the chemical should be safe for everyone, he said, and the extra warning was given for pregnant women “out of an abundance of caution.”
Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, criticized the amount of information the CDC has released, and said the West Virginia incident shows the gaps in the current toxic-chemical law.
“We still don’t know how relevant these studies are to the situation at hand,” Denison said in an interview. “There are still a lot of questions.”
Those include how long were the animals exposed to the chemical and what health effects did the scientists look for, he said.
Local residents reported in recent days that their water still didn’t taste right and their homes were still filled with the chemical odor, even after they “flushed” their systems as advised by the water company.
Of the 317 patients who sought hospital treatment for symptoms linked to the chemical, 31 have gone to hospitals in recent days, according to data from the state health department. Of that overall total, 14 were admitted. None were still hospitalized yesterday.
Manchin and Capito asked the CDC for the methodology used to develop the safety standard, what information led the agency to issue its later caution for pregnant women and when it first became concerned about the possible impact on those expecting.
“How confident are you that 1 part per million will remain the protective standard for all West Virginians — including young children, those with medical conditions, and the elderly?” the lawmakers asked.
–Editors: Jon Morgan, Don Frederick