More than 300,000 residents of West Virginia have been unable to use the tap water running into their homes, workplaces, restaurants, schools, and elsewhere due to a chemical spill at the Freedom Industries plant near Charleston. As the leak is being contained, the water-use ban is being lifted region by region although residents in areas where the ban is lifted say they still see and smell traces of the chemical in their water. Some are refusing to use it despite the lifted ban.

Pregnant women in the entire nine-county-wide spill zone are being cautioned by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to remain on high alert even after the ban is lifted. The CDC, working in conjunction with the WV Bureau of Public Health, describes the alert to pregnant women as being prompted “out of an abundance of caution.”

The chemical culprit, 4-methyl-cyclohexane-methanol (MCHM), is being used to clean coal mines in the area. Very little is known about this chemical, even by the CDC. In Tuesday’s broadcast of the NPR show, All Things Considered, Elizabeth Shogren reports the chemical is so little known that area chemists, toxicologists, emergency responders, and the local supplier of water had never heard of it until the leak brought it to public attention.

Since so little is known about the chemical, there is no sure way to assess what level of contamination is safe. The CDC is standing by its previous statement to pregnant women that no adverse health effects are expected at contamination levels below 1 ppm (parts per million). Local officials will notify residents when the contamination level is reduced to that level in an area-by-area basis.

The chemical emits an aroma that resembles licorice and residents in the affected zone report off-color water. The contamination level that causes these effects is unknown and probably varies widely across the spill zone.

The danger zone is currently isolated to the Kanawha Valley area. American Water Works Company, the supplier of water to valley residents, is maintaining a continuously updated web page devoted to the spill. The web page includes links to where residents can find safe, drinkable water, how to flush one’s plumbing system, and responses to questions it is getting from its customers. As the ban is lifted or new areas are affected by the spill as it moves down the river, the web page is updated accordingly.

Sources: 

  1. Chappell, Bill. “Pregnant Women Warned Against Drinking Water in W.Va. Area.” NPR. Jan 15, 2104. Web. Jan 16, 2014. 
  2. “For West Virginia American Water Kanawha Valley Customers / IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO CUSTOMERS:  Kanawha Valley Water Safety Status Map.” American Water.  American Water Works Company, Inc.  Jan 15, 2014.  Web.  Jan 16, 2014.