Five weeks after coal-processing chemicals seeped into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia, many residents and businesses in the nine affected counties remain worried about the safety of the water supply.
The water-use restrictions imposed after the January 9 spill have been lifted, but even after purging pipes in their homes, many residents still detect the licorice odor of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), which leaked from storage tanks at Freedom Industries. Because so little is known about the toxicity of MCMH and PPH, another chemical Freedom Industries has since disclosed leaked into the river, many residents continue to use bottled and trucked-in water.
Officials have been reluctant to call the water “safe” and describe it with such phrases as “appropriate to use,” according to the AP. Concerned Charleston resident Jeanette Maddox, like many others, fills containers with trucked-in water three times a week. “Well, they won’t use the word ‘safe,'” Maddox said. Numerous Charleston restaurants are cooking with bottled water and they display signs saying so to reassure patrons. On February 5 and 6, five schools were temporarily shut down again when the licorice odor reemerged.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that pregnant women to continue using bottled water until MCMH was undetectable, according to the AP. In a letter to West Virginia health officials, CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden explained that “there are few studies on this specialized chemical,” making it difficult to calculate how much MCMH can be ingested without adverse health effects. Kanawha County Health Officer Dr. Rahul Gupta said doctors are advising people with chronic conditions or compromised immune systems to avoid tap water.
The National Science Foundation (NSF), acting quickly to address concerns, awarded Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grants to teams at three universities to begin immediate study of the spill, including effects on household pipes and damage to municipal water systems, according to an NSF news release.