(NY TIMES) – The water was back on (in Charleston,West Virginia), but the anxiety had not shut off.
“My mom’s a nurse, and she didn’t want us drinking it or giving it to the kids or our animals,” Shawna Moore said as she shopped at a bookstore with her daughters, 9 and 12.
“I’m not going to start using it yet,” he said. “I sure don’t want to drink it.”
His neighbor Ritchie Leach pointed at Mr. Hermansdorfer and said, with a morbid humor common here these days,
“I’m going to let him take a shower first and see if his hair falls out.”
Even as some 39,000 customers had received the all-clear signal by Tuesday, after a chemical spill last week contaminated tap water for Charleston and surrounding counties, many feared drinking and cooking with it. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the water company and state health officials have all assured residents in recent days that once the leaked chemical, known as MCHM, became diluted to less than one part per million in the drinking water, safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies would be met. But in interviews with numerous local residents, few were convinced that all was well, and an outside environmental scientist questioned the standards authorities were using.
The scientist, Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, said the government calculation of a safe level appeared to be based on a single study by the chemical’s manufacturer, never published, and that it included several leaps of reasoning that he called unfounded.
“This is a significant departure from how the E.P.A. normally calculates risk,” he said.
Although there have been no serious hospitalizations from the spill of up to 7,500 gallons of MCHM into the Elk River on Thursday, the shutdown of drinking water affecting 300,000 people amounted to a sweeping health and economic emergency in the state capital. Now that normalcy is returning, however, the authorities appear to have another problem, one of public distrust.
Officials began hundreds of tests soon after it was determined that the drinking water was contaminated with MCHM, a chemical used to wash coal that has a sweet odor like licorice.
Dr. Letitia E. Tierney, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, said the standard of one part per million was based on a study in which rats were fed MCHM until it killed them. She called the mathematical calculations used to convert the danger from an animal study to humans conservative. She said that in addition to the E.P.A., the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were reviewing water samples, all
“to ensure the public health and safety of our citizens.”
Dr. Denison, however, a biochemist, said the government’s methodology was flawed. He said basing calculations on the lethal dose in rats ignored broader and more likely health consequences for humans.
“What is far more likely is subtle health effects,” he said. “This chemical could cause liver or kidney damage. It could interfere with metabolism in people.”
One of many West Virginia lawmakers scrambling to devise new statutes to prevent future catastrophes, State Senator John Unger, the majority leader, said he could not second-guess the scientists. But he understood why people remained fearful of their tap water.
“What we don’t know are the long-term effects of this chemical,” he said. “Have they done any research? No one knows. This is the problem.”
A spokeswoman for the manufacturer of MCHM, the Eastman Chemical Company of Kingsport, Tenn., said it was cooperating with authorities, but declined to make studies of the chemical’s effects public, calling them proprietary. On Tuesday, West Virginia American Water, the regional supplier, continued its second day of lifting the drinking ban by zones, now including densely populated parts of Charleston and communities south of the Kanawha River. But many residents said they would continue using the bottled water that had been trucked in by the palletload and widely distributed.
“I’m way too scared to drink it,” said Kristie Kitto, a missionary for the Mormon Church who has lived in South Charleston for several months. “I just don’t want cancer.”
She and others described their days of making do with bottled water for brushing teeth and heating kettles for sponge baths as akin to life in an undeveloped country. But even as they took long-awaited hot showers and returned to the restaurants allowed to open, there was skepticism.
“I have millions of bottles of water that people gave me, and I’m going to drink that,” said Heaven Parks, 19, who works at a Family Dollar store. She said she would probably shower with city water but was still deciding about brushing her teeth with it.
James Kinder, a retired airport worker who lives in a rural part of Boone County where the ban was still in effect, said he had plenty of bottled water, but faced another issue since he and his wife had been subsisting on meals that did not require dishwashing.
“Now you can’t find TV dinners in any of the stores,” he said.