The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

June 27, 2014

Feds: No more animal tests on spilled chemical

CHARLESTON — Despite rejection from federal health officials, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is still pushing for more animal studies to understand what health effects may surface years after the January chemical spill into West Virginia’s biggest water supply.

Though little lab research was available after the spill, federal officials quickly decided what chemical level was safe enough to drink in water. Citing the federal guidance, state and water company officials gradually let 300,000 people use their tap water again after a 4- to 10-day ban.

In February, Tomblin asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about additional animal studies. He didn’t get the response he wanted.

The CDC in March described plans to track health trends with only existing resources, like birth defects surveillance, cancer registries and health systems data. The March 13 letter was made public Thursday.

CDC Director Thomas Frieden said he believed long-term effects were unlikely from the spilled chemical, crude MCHM.

State and congressional officials are still urging for CDC to make the studies happen.

“Anytime an event like this affects 300,000 people, it’s worth taking a look at,” Tomblin said Thursday of additional animal testing.

Without more animal research, a blueprint to test 720 more homes for the spilled chemical could be on hold.

Without mentioning specifics, CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden said the agency “continues to work with West Virginia and other public health officials to consider activities that will enhance our understanding of the possible health effects of the Elk River spill and strengthen public health responses to future events involving chemicals about which little is known.”

An independent group contracted by Tomblin to study the chemical originally suggested additional water sampling in homes. But one of its leaders said Thursday that understanding possible long-term problems from chemical-laden water is the top priority.

The group, WV TAP, used $765,000 from the state to test for the chemical in 10 homes and study its characteristics.

“The most important thing right now is to understand the long-term health effects at some of the higher concentrations that we know people were exposed to,” said Jeffrey Rosen, a lead WV TAP researcher.

In a report Thursday, WV TAP researchers also said water utilities should inventory upstream chemicals, focusing on how they are stored, how long it would take them to flow downstream and how to test for them.

WV TAP urged utilities to install early warning detection systems.

West Virginia American Water, the utility affected in the spill, said it is offering input on plans to protect water supplies required in a new state law. Spokeswoman Laura Jordan said the company is also studying water quality monitoring options.

The group suggested more research on pregnant animals exposed to the spilled chemical. WV TAP also wants researchers to determine what chemical concentrations can irritate people’s skin, a problem detailed in emergency room visits after the spill.

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