Feds commit to health studies on spilled chemical

CHARLESTON (AP) — After largely dismissing the possibility of long-term health problems, federal officials will conduct more studies on chemicals that spilled into West Virginia’s largest drinking water supply in January.

In the next two months, federal health officials are also heading back to West Virginia. They want to determine how best to track the health of 300,000 people who dealt with contaminated water, though no money has been committed yet, said Kanawha County health officer Dr. Rahul Gupta.

The two Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promises came after months of pressure for more federal follow-up on the massive spill. State, county and federal officials, including CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden, discussed the details in Sen. Joe Manchin’s Washington, D.C., office Wednesday.

The commitment was first reported by WOWK-TV.

The National Institutes of Health pledged that its National Toxicology Program will spend $750,000 to $1.2 million on a series of studies that will take six months to a year to complete, Gupta said.

Some studies would look at chemical effects on pregnant rats, lower-level organisms and gene expression in rats, said National Toxicology Program Associate Director Dr. John Bucher. There may also be a need to combine the two spilled chemicals to simulate what entered people’s water taps, Bucher said.

“I think maybe (the CDC) began to have a better sensitivity to what the needs of the people of West Virginia were because we just continued to talk about it,” said state Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling.

The decision ends months of stagnation for state and local officials who have pushed for more federal help.

In a March letter, Frieden did not grant Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s request for additional animal studies. Frieden had said he believed long-term health effects were unlikely from the main spilled chemical, crude MCHM.

CDC planned to track health trends using only existing resources, like birth defects surveillance, cancer registries and health systems data, Frieden wrote in March.

“It may be time to do the studies that will provide us with a little more confidence that what we believe is true is in fact the case,” Bucher said Wednesday.

After the January spill at Freedom Industries, CDC used the sparse lab research available to decide quickly what chemical level was safe to drink in water. Citing CDC’s guidance, state and water company officials gradually let people across nine counties use tap water again after a 4- to 10-day ban.

Hundreds of people went to the emergency room in the two weeks after the spill, many after the tap-water ban was lifted. Some common symptoms were rashes, nausea, vomiting and itching.

Pregnant women received mixed messages. Days after many people were first told to drink the water again in January, CDC advised expectant mothers to consider a different water source. A month later, agency officials said the guidance was only meant to empower them to make healthy choices.

Public unease grew again last week when the federal Chemical Safety Board revealed the spill could have started before Jan. 9.

Additionally, older toxicology testing came under fire two weeks ago. University of South Alabama researcher Andrew Whelton found that crude MCHM was more toxic to water fleas than previous similar testing indicated.

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