Test results on tap water in 10 West Virginia homes – in a state-commissioned study into whether the water is safe to drink after a chemical spill last month — will be available in one to three weeks, according to scientists leading the effort.
Prof. Andrew Whelton, of the University of South Alabama, one of the project’s leaders, said they are assembling a panel to examine the available data on how much of the little-studied chemical can remain in the water and still be safe for consumption, CNN reports. “Our project will clarify at what levels (the chemical) should be ingested,” Whelton told reporters at a news conference.
The West Virginia Testing Assessment Project comes after an estimated 10,000 gallons of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) leaked last month from a storage tank at Freedom Industries into the Elk River in Charleston, contaminating the public water supply. After the spill was discovered, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin issued a do-not-use order for 300,000 West Virginians in nine counties. They could not drink, cook, or bathe with their water for more than a week. Even after officials lifted the ban last month, questions and concerns persisted and Gov. Tomblin ordered the in-depth studies, CNN reports.
Water sample collection at the 10 homes was finished last Wednesday. Six hundred samples were sent to laboratories in three states, according to CNN. Little is known about MCHM, which is used in coal processing. An independent water test conducted this month at CNN’s request found trace levels of MCHM, in untreated river water and in tap water from two homes in Charleston in amounts ranging from less than 0.5 parts per billion (ppb) to 1.6 parts per billion. This range is well below the 1 part per million (ppm) the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said it considers unlikely to be associated with any adverse health effects. But official CDC guidance about the water does not use the word “safe.” Based on animal studies, the CDC says, levels of the chemical were calculated at levels where “a person could likely ingest without resulting in adverse health effects.” This is not the reassurance residents seek. Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County health departments, told CNN, “People are looking for that word (safe).”
Pregnant women have been advised not to drink tap water until levels of MCMH are undetectable. Many other West Virginians continue to use bottled or trucked-in water, according to CNN, and numerous restaurants are cooking with bottled water.