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Patrol boat on the Elk River motors past Freedom Industries plant.
Freedom Industries' operation on the Elk River.
Late Wednesday, in response to a letter from Dr. Thomas Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources warned pregnant women to drink only bottled water "until there are no longer detectable levels of MCHM in the water distribution system."
The new advice has prompted some environmental advocates to wonder what the hell is going on.

The warning is based on an "abundance of caution" and does not change the CDC's assessment that water tainted with MCHM at levels of one part per million or less is safe to use for all purposes. Frieden noted that "there are few studies on this specialized chemical" and the CDC used "available information" to come up with its original assessment after the leak was publicly announced. "These calculations use safety factors to take into account the differences between animals and people, and to consider possible effects on specialized populations," Frieden wrote. The letter went on to say that, since making their initial calculations, CDC scientists "have obtained additional animal studies" about the chemical that "are currently being reviewed."

Do pregnant West Virginians in the nine counties where MCHM leaked into the drinking water really have something to worry about? That's unclear. It's also unclear why it took so friggin' long for the CDC to get its act together on the advisory.

Please read below the fold for more on the CDC and the West Virginia water situation.

West Virginia American Water began lifting a ban on its customers' using tap water for drinking, bathing and cooking Monday. That was after tests showed MCHM—the coal-washing chemical spilled into the Elk River last week—had been reduced in several areas to the supposedly safe one part per million level. By Thursday morning, some 200,000 of 300,000 affected customers had been freed from the ban imposed after MCHM had leaked from rusty storage tanks owned and operated by Freedom Industries. Ken Ward Jr. and David Gutman of the Charleston Gazette reported:

The advisory for pregnant women comes after state officials have said little about how the 1 part-per-million figure was derived, and the CDC has refused repeated requests for interviews on the matter.
A senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, Dr. Richard Denison, said:
“What is particularly maddening and outrageous is that no one—not local or state officials, not the company that owns the storage tank, not the federal government—can say anything even close to definitive about what risk the chemical poses to people, even in the short-term, let alone over time."
In a late Wednesday update of a previous blog post at EDF, Denison wrote that it is uncertain what had prompted the belated warning to pregnant women:
It appears the new information prompted the CDC recommendation that West Virginia consider advising pregnant women to avoid drinking the water, which raises the question as to whether the new animal studies suggest a potential for developmental toxicity or a related effect. [...]

Questions have already been raised on this blog about the lack of data on this chemical and the methodology used by government officials to calculate the 1 ppm level.  This new development, however, I believe lends even greater weight to the need for immediate public release of both all available studies and the methodology.


Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Thu Jan 16, 2014 at 08:36 AM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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