Twists endure in federal response to W.Va. spill

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. – After showing little initial interest, federal officials ordered more studies on animals affected by chemicals that sullied drinking water for 300,000 people in January.


For West Virginia, it’s the latest curveball of federal follow-up to the massive Freedom Industries chemical spill in Charleston.


Agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency and National Institutes for Health interpreted minimal available research to decide when nine counties could safely use tap water again.


In the process, pregnant women received mixed messages, debate ensued about what “safe” means and emergency room visits spiked after some people were told to use their water.


“Despite our best efforts, CDC acknowledges that what was known and not known during the Elk River spill could have been better communicated,” said CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden said Friday. “We are committed to communicating clearly about what we know and what we don’t as our work with West Virginia continues and during future events.”


Here is a timeline of federal health agencies’ involvement in the response.


• Jan. 9: A tank leaked a coal-cleaning agent into the Elk River. Crude MCHM and PPH flowed into a water treatment plant. State environmental inspectors first showed up to check the site after neighbors complained of a licorice smell. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued a do-not-use order for tap water for nine counties.


• Jan. 10: State officials said the ban could be lifted when crude MCHM dropped to a federally determined level. CDC and federal partners quickly created that standard based off limited animal lab research. The mark only accounted for drinking the water, which federal officials considered the biggest health concern. CDC said there was little supporting info to consider potential risks of breathing in the chemical.


• Jan. 13: Based on CDC’s mark, state and water company officials started clearing customers to use tap water again. They were advised to flush their pipes by running their water.


• Jan. 15: Due to limited data, CDC sent an advisory that pregnant women might want to consider other drinking water options until the chemical was undetectable. For three days, emergency room visits also began to spike. Many were skin problems from bathing.


• Feb. 5: EPA and CDC officials returned to Charleston to reassure that everyone could use their water however they wanted. Dr. Tanja Popovic, acting director of the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said: “You can drink it. You can bathe in it. You can use it how you like.” She would not call the water “safe,” however. Popovic also downplayed the advisory for pregnant women, saying it only intended to empower them to make health decisions.


• Feb. 24: After avoiding the word “safe,” the CDC finally used the word. Agency spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said CDC recognized “the desire of some to use the less scientific term.”


• March 13: The CDC did not grant Tomblin’s request for more animal studies. In a letter, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said long-term health impacts were unlikely.


• March 17: Popovic, who visited Charleston in February, resigned. She had been under scrutiny for questioning the need for a study of cancers possibly tied to tainted water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.


• April 23: CDC reported that more than half of spill-related patients who went to the ER in two weeks after the leak had problems after showering, hand-washing and other skin contact. Nausea, vomiting and sore throats were other symptoms.


• July 7: Results from an April door-to-door CDC-partnered survey showed one-fifth of households surveyed had spill-related symptoms.


• July 23: Federal officials promised up to $1.2 million in new studies using animals and other methods. Dr. John Bucher of the National Toxicology Program said the tests could serve to re-instill public confidence. CDC also promised to assist in determining how to monitor people’s long-term health.


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