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Study: Chemical that spilled in West Virginia could be more toxic than previous test showed

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CHARLESTON, West Virginia — A new study shows a chemical that spilled into West Virginia's biggest drinking water supply in January could be more toxic than a previous test indicated.

University of South Alabama researcher Andrew Whelton released findings Thursday from crude MCHM toxicity tests on water fleas. The freshwater microcrustacean is often used in toxicological studies.

The results indicate that it takes much less exposure for the chemical to be toxic to the fleas than an earlier study showed. Eastman Chemical, crude MCHM's manufacturer, conducted the one-time study on fleas in 1998.

Whelton tried to replicate Eastman's results three times, but couldn't. His group kept finding the fleas were eight times more sensitive to the chemical than Eastman reported.

Eastman spokeswoman Maranda Demuth said the company's studies followed proper guidelines and the company has no reason to question their conclusions. She added that Eastman was unaware of damage to aquatic life from the January spill.

Though the tests are far removed from directly applying to human exposure, Whelton said accurate studies are critical for officials responding to emergencies.

The officials "must be able to rely upon the data that they're being provided, that's accurate and reproducible," Whelton said. "They cannot protect public health if they're provided data that has no value."

Whelton also found that on Eastman's material-safety data sheets, the company said it took 20 percent less crude MCHM exposure to produce toxic effects in water fleas than the company's 1998 study found. Whelton could not find a reason for the discrepancy.

The data sheets are used by first responders during emergencies.

Pointing to the results Thursday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin continued calling for more animal studies on the long-term health effects of crude MCHM.

In March, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not grant Tomblin's request for more studies on the chemical, saying it was unlikely any long-term health problems would arise.

The CDC used limited lab-rat research conducted by Eastman to determine how much crude MCHM could safely be in drinking water.

Officials used CDC's guidance to lift a ban on most tap water uses for 300,000 people that lasted four to 10 days.

The CDC declined to comment on Whelton's study because it isn't their own work, and has not been published in a journal or peer-reviewed, said agency spokeswoman Bernadette Burden.

Whelton funded the water flea project and others with a $70,000 National Science Foundation grant. He led separate spill research for Tomblin's administration with $765,000 in state money. That team, nicknamed WV TAP, also has called for more animal research on long-term chemical impacts.

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