Chemical Leak
12:26 pm
Wed January 29, 2014

West Virginia Official: People Are Inhaling Formaldehyde

By now, you’ve probably heard of crude MCHM, the chemical that spilled into the Elk River in early January contaminating the drinking water of 300 thousand West Virginians.

And may be you’ve even heard of PPH, the second chemical contained in the leaky tank at the Freedom Industries site.

But almost three weeks after the leak, how much do we really know about these chemicals?

Scott Simonton, vice chair of the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board, told a Joint Commission on Water Resources Wednesday, they still don’t know much, and they certainly don’t know enough.

Marshall University Professor and Environmental Quality Board member Dr. Scott Simonton speaks to a legislative committee on Wednesday, January 29.
Marshall University Professor and Environmental Quality Board member Dr. Scott Simonton speaks to a legislative committee on Wednesday, January 29.
Credit Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Simonton said one of the biggest questions is what happens to these chemicals when they begin to react with the environment.

What happens when they mix with chlorine in the water treatment facility?

What happens when they mix with soaps or detergents in your home?

What happens when the human body metabolizes them?

Those questions, he says, don’t have answers.

But Simonton is starting to find the answers to some of those questions as he tests the water quality throughout the West Virginia American Water distribution system in the Kanawha Valley.

The testing is funded by a Charleston law firm, Thompson Barney LLC, which is also representing businesses that lost money because they couldn't use water for days.

“Our concern was these breakdown products. We know for example that methanol can break down into formaldehyde,” he told the commission.

“Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. That’s important and so we thought, ‘wow, we should be looking for formaldehyde.’ Sure enough we have found formaldehyde in the water system.”

Test results were positive for the water at the Vandalia Grille in downtown Charleston.

Simonton said formaldehyde is most dangerous and most toxic when inhaled. Formaldehyde often leads to respiratory cancers. State health officials and representative of West Virginia American Water have refuted Simonton's research on the matter, calling his remarks "mileading" and "unfounded."

“We don’t know what the concentration of it is in air, but I can guarantee you that the citizens of this valley are at least in some instances breathing formaldehyde,” he said.

“They’re taking a hot shower, this stuff is breaking down to formaldehyde in the water system and they’re inhaling it.”

The new revelations and new information Simonton provided the commission is something Senate Majority Leader Senator John Unger said shocked him and his fellow lawmakers.

“The testimony today was quite disturbing and I think the entire commission was kind of put back quite a bit because that’s not the information we’ve been hearing as far as the news media,” Unger said, “and what he was testifying today was the hard truth and it definitely was difficult.”

Simonton told the commission the information state officials released in the days during the chemical leak, information about when the water was safe for use and consumption, he can’t find what evidence they had to back it.

“What concerns me is the information they were giving out as if they did know. They were saying ‘go ahead and drink it, it’s okay, it’s safe now.’ Well, we heard both on Friday from the Chemical Safety Board and from Dr. Simonton that it’s not safe to drink,” Unger said.

 “I think that’s where the disappointment is that these authorities are saying things without the proper science to back it up.”

Unger said by allowing people to continue to consume and use the water without having that evidence could possibly be exposing more people to the chemical.

Tuesday, Senators passed Senate Bill 373 creating new regulations for similar above ground storage facilities and called it step one in preventing future water contamination, but Unger said figuring out the health effects, that has to be part of step one as well.

 “We need to do it simultaneously. We need to be moving forward. The whole idea of Senate Bill 373 was to make sure that this doesn’t again anywhere in West Virginia,” he said. “Now we have to look at what do we do in response now that it’s happened and this is an ongoing situation that’s unraveling as we get more and more information and how do we help those people that have been exposed to it, which is all of us here in Charleston and the Kanawha Valley.”

Going forward, Unger said lawmakers will rely on the medical community to monitor and figure out ways to treat anyone exposed to the chemical.

His commission hopes to hear from the Department of Health and Human Resources on monitoring in the next week.