Nearly two weeks after a chemical spill placed 9 West Virginia counties in a state of emergency, the last official water restrictions have been lifted. But, according to the WV Gazette, the number of people getting sick from exposure to 4-methylcyclohexane methanol has increased.
As of this weekend, 411 patients had been treated for reported chemical exposure since January 9, the day when Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency following a chemical spill in the Kanawha Valley water system. That number increased from last Thursday, when the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) reported that 317 residents had been treated for chemical exposure and 14 had been hospitalized.
According to a DHHR spokesperson, none of the patients are still in the hospital and none were in critical condition. The West Virginia Poison center received 2,302 calls regarding the chemical leak, including human-related requests, animal-related requests, and requests for information only.
On Thursday, January 9, the chemical leak was reported by Freedom Industries, a Charleston-based company that produces specialty chemicals for the mining, steel, and cement industries. The chemical that entered the water system is used in coal processing.
Residents have reportedly smelled a licorice-like odor from the chemical. Federal officials have recommended “a more lengthy ‘flush’ of home plumbing systems than state leaders and West Virginia American Water advised 300,000 residents to use,” according to the Gazette. On Sunday, the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry suggested that residents be informed to run water in their homes until they no longer smelled the odor.
In a January 10 email from the agency to DHHR, officials said they did not “anticipate any adverse health effects” from the levels of chemical being detected. However, one resident told the Gazette that both she and her infant son fell ill after drinking and bathing in the water before news of the leak and subsequent water ban were announced.
Elliot reportedly bathed her 7-month-old son in contaminated water and used it in his formula. Her son developed a rash and has had diarrhea since January 9. When she took her son to CAMC General hospital, the doctor noted in his report that she had bathed her son in hot water, causing the rash. According to the Gazette:
I understand the doctors don’t know about this, but they could have been a little bit more [understanding], she said, adding that she knows better than to put her baby in hot bath water.
Her pediatrician took stool samples of the boy Friday and the family is waiting for test results to rule out the possibility of a viral infection.
Exposure to the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol can cause symptoms such as severe burning in the throat, severe eye irritation, continuous vomiting, trouble breathing, and skin irritation, including a rash. “Some doctors have described it as a ‘solar burn,’ which is similar to a sunburn,” Dr. Letitia Tierney, commissioner of the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health said in a press release last week.
“The heightened concern among residents exposed to the contaminated water is warranted, especially since so little is known about the effects of the chemical on humans,” noted Emmie Paulos, an attorney with the Levin, Papantonio law firm who is involved in the BP oil spill litigation.
“The spill of chemicals into a water supply is a very serious offense that requires a careful investigation of all the facts surrounding the incident,” she continued. “There are federal environmental laws in place to protect the public and environment.”