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Emergency room visits associated with chemical exposure have almost tripled since West Virginia officials lifted the ban on using water in the Charleston area contaminated by a coal cleaning chemical that contaminated a river from leaking  tank just upstream of the water supply intake. A statement by the governor's office said that symptoms are topical, short lived, are easily treated, and will go away. The on line statement from the governor's office reassuring the public about water safety was similar to a statement made by West Virginia American Water Company. The governor's office admitted that the chemical is adsorbed by plastic pipes and minerals lining pipes, but stated the water is safe to drink.

This is what happens when municipal water supply is privatized, federal environmental enforcement is given to the state government and the state government regulators are captive to the industries they are supposedly regulating. Here's what regulatory capture looks like.

"Both state and local health officials concurred with the guidelines developed by West Virginia American Water Company to ensure water quality," the state agency said.
In West Virginia, people get sick from pollution and the government protects the polluting industries, not the citizens. The facts are simple. (Note: I am a geochemist who has worked on water safety issues, but it doesn't take a geochemist to see what's wrong here.) No one knows what level of contamination is safe because no one ever did any testing of the chemical to determine safe levels. Moreover, no one knows if it is associated with impurities or decay products that might be more toxic than the coal cleaning chemical itself. No one knows the long-term effects of this chemical exposure because no studies have been done. The actions by the government since this toxic spill began are, to me, even more disturbing than the inaction that led to the spill.

Think Progress compiled the details on the jump in hospital visits and calls since the water ban was lifted.

according to statistics released by the state health department on Saturday, it turns out that since the bans on water began being lifted, hospital admissions and calls to the poison control center have doubled. Emergency room visits have nearly tripled.

On Jan. 12, the day before do-not-use orders began being lifted, health department officials cited 10 hospital admissions, 169 people treated and released from the emergency room, and a little more than 1,000 calls to the poison control center.

By Saturday — the same day the final 2 percent of people affected by the spill got their water back — those numbers had increased significantly. According to a report in the Charleston Gazette, health officials said 20 people had been admitted to the hospitals, 411 had been treated and released from the emergency room, and 2,302 had called the poison control center. Of those, 1,862 were human-related, 98 were animal-related and the rest were requests for information only.

Saturday’s numbers were also much greater than Thursday’s numbers, when health officials said only 317 had been treated and 14 had been hospitalized.

A diligent regulatory agency, upon seeing these numbers, would take action to protect the citizens. More flushing of pipes in affected areas would be a minimum action. Reinstating the water ban in affected areas would be a conservative response. West Virginia officials took a different approach in an on-line release posted this Saturday.
What is causing the burns/rashes and emergency room visits, if people are using “safe” water?

We’ve been monitoring everyone who has presented to the hospital, and what they’ve been complaining of is not a burn like you and I would think of as a burn. Some doctors have described it as a “solar burn” which is similar to a sunburn.  Basically, it’s red skin.  Everyone has different sensitivities and as we move through the flushing process, sediment has been stirred up from your hot water tank and the pipes.  Some sediment may be coming through the shower that you don’t even see. Because everyone has different sensitivities, some may be experiencing this and some may not.

These are topical only.  They’re short-lived.  They are easily treated with over-the-counter products.  I would advise anybody who is seeing this type of reaction to speak with your physician.  They won’t last.  Once things settle down, these symptoms will go away.  

As someone who has personally developed sensitivities to volatile organic chemicals, I know from personal experience that there's no way to know what the long-term effects of this chemical exposure will be. And, given that West Virginia's air and water have been polluted for generations and will continue to be polluted, doctors and scientists will be challenged to tie this particular chemical exposure to long-term health effects.

The government of West Virginia knows there's a problem with continued water contamination, but they are downplaying it. Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette, who deserves a Pulitzer for his coverage of the coal industry, uncovered the state's use of the water company's words.

In a press release issued Saturday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office explained that issue this way: "MCHM may temporarily adhere to plastic pipelines which could result in a lingering licorice smell for some time. The chemical is such that you can continue to smell it, even at 100,000 times below the no observable adverse effect level."

Messina said that those statements were based on consultations with Louisville Water Co., which he said developed its own odor threshold for Crude MCHM. State officials could not immediately provide any documents explaining how that was done, and Louisville Water officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Eastman Chemical Co., which makes Crude MCHM, says on its "material safety data sheet" that there is "no data available" concerning an odor threshold below which people will not smell the material.

On its Facebook page, West Virginia American Water makes statements about the chemical's odor that are nearly identical to those made in the Tomblin press release.

The federal government needs to take control of water quality enforcement in West Virginia. The state is incapable of enforcing federal regulations because it is effectively controlled by the corporations it is responsible for regulating.
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Originally posted to FishOutofWater on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 11:46 AM PST.

Also republished by DK GreenRoots.

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