With little known about the chemical compound MCHM, public health was—and remains—the focus of January’s spill of MCHM by Freedom Industries into the Elk River. Dr. Rahul Gupta of the Kanawha Charleston Health Department and other public health officials gathered Tuesday for an online presentation hosted by the National Association of County and City Health Officials to detail past and on-going efforts.
Gupta began his portion of the webinar to outline the timeline of the spill before moving on to data collected on the event. He said a recent survey shows that, while some residents were using the water to do laundry or for other purposes, many of those affected weren’t drinking the water at the beginning of March.
“About 85 to 90 percent of people were utilizing the water for some reason,” said Gupta.
“However, what’s impressive was only about 5 percent or less people were using it to drink. If you think about March 1st, you’re thinking about maybe two months—almost two months—after the event. It’s remarkable.”
As for those who were believed to have been exposed to MCHM, Gupta said data indicates there were two main spikes where residents sought medical attention for skin and eye irritation, rashes, and nausea, among other symptoms.
“What is remarkable here is on January 9th, we saw a spike in symptoms. And we will discuss what symptoms. It went down on about the 12th and 13th to low levels and then, as the flushing began, the symptoms again resumed,” he said.
Using syndromic surveillance data from medical providers in Kanawha and Putnam Counties, Gupta estimates nearly 93,000 people may have experienced symptoms related to the spill.
From a home survey conducted during water sampling, Dr. Andrew Whelton of the University of South Alabama, believes over 108,000 residents’ may have been medically impacted.
Those estimates, which attempt to account for those who didn’t seek treatment, far outnumber data released by the Department of Health and Human Resources. Reports from DHHR indicate that more than 500 residents sought medical attention from reported exposures in the two weeks following the spill.
Conference participants also heard from the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health’s Martha McElfresh, who helped oversee testing of 581 of some 3,000 samples collected in the weeks following the spill.
But, she said one of the main challenges has been given little attention over the past three and a half months: mental health.
“Two weeks after, we had a lot of people that were kind of falling apart at the seams, which is fairly common. The water company’s management had the same problems,” McElfresh explained.
“When you put people through days like this and nights like this, it’s very difficult. But, we worked through it."
As for response from the West Virginia Poison Center, Dr. Elizabeth Scharman said the first call regarding the spill came in two minutes after the announcement of the do not use order and a total of 637 calls were received by the center by the end of the night.
However, Scharman said a lack staffing caused a few problems in getting information to members of the public who had called with concerns.
“We did not like the fact that people had busy signals or not all questions were answered but, I think given the situation, we did the best that we could do," said Scharman.
"The number of calls that came in that first night ended up being 27 percent of the total call volume for this acute phase. And we’re calling the acute phase from the time of the do not use order until the day after all of the zones had been opened for use.”
But, as recovery efforts continue, the question remains as to how long the incident might impact public health. McElfresh, said it’s far from over.
“We still have citizens calling wanting their water tested, they still have many questions that cannot be answered at this juncture, and it’s going to be a problem for a long time to come.”