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Study: Feds didn't consider risk of inhaling chemical spilled into West Virginia water supply


CHARLESTON, West Virginia — Federal health officials overlooked risks of inhaling the licorice-scented fumes of a chemical that spilled into West Virginia's biggest water supply last January, according to a study.

The research by a Purdue University team found that some West Virginians became ill after flushing their pipes of the main spilled chemical, crude MCHM. The chemical leak from Freedom Industries in Charleston spurred a tap-water ban for 300,000 people for four to 10 days.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention crafted a standard for how much chemical-laden water people could drink safely. The mark didn't consider other contact methods, such as bathing in the contaminated water or inhaling its fumes.

In a news release, Purdue assistant professor Andrew Whelton said flushing guidelines also didn't account for inhaling the chemical. West Virginia American Water, the utility whose water supply became tainted, advised its customers to run hot and cold water from taps for a few minutes to flush the chemical once the tap-water ban was lifted.

People became sick while flushing in poorly ventilated rooms, like bathrooms, Whelton said.

In the two weeks after the spill, hundreds of people showed up at emergency rooms with ailments after drinking the chemical-tainted water. Patients also experienced health problems after bathing, showering and washing their hands with it. And they expressed concerns after breathing in the licorice scent, such as when taking a shower.

Symptoms ranged from nausea and dizziness, to rashes and respiratory irritation.

Federal officials twice determined there wasn't enough data to create a safe mark for inhaling the chemical. Then in October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crafted an inhalation standard to help with the Freedom site cleanup.

Whelton also said it was a major oversight that no one tested homes for the chemical right after the spill.

Whelton was part of a state-funded independent team that tested 10 homes in February, the largest in-home testing effort. The testing, which was part of a larger $765,000 series of studies, found small traces still in each of the homes. In March, researchers said it was likely due to the water company still having minimal chemicals clinging to their filters, albeit well within the safe threshold.

The company subsequently changed its filters, and no chemicals were detectable in the plant's treated water afterward.

The Purdue study was funded by a $70,000 National Science Foundation federal grant.

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