West Virginians Report Illness From Water

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Charleston Paramedics responded to a man unresponsive on the banks of the Elk River on January 10, 2014 in Charleston, West Virginia. Authorities thought it might be related to the chemical leak. (Tom Hindman/Getty)

In West Virginia, the ban on tap water following the Elk River chemical spill has been lifted incrementally since Monday.

Though the taps have started running and the cameras have begun to head home, the story is not over.

On Tuesday, environmental activist Erin Brokovich showed up in Charleston, where 300,000 people have been affected by the chemical spill.

“We've got to stop our laissez-faire attitude about safety last, money first because it's not working—it's not making any business sense to me," said Brokovich.

Safety is the key word there. Not much is known about MCMH—an estimated 7,500 gallons of the chemical, which is used to remove impurities from coal, leaked into the Elk River. Despite that uncertainty, the water has been deemed safe for many—safe to shower in, safe to cook with, and safe to drink.

Since officials began clearing the water for use, however, dozens are reporting side effects from chemical exposure.

Joining The Takeaway to explain what kind of symptoms West Virginia residents are seeing is Dr. Elizabeth Brown, a Charleston-based general practitioner who has been treating victims of the chemical spill.

"People are scared, people are nervous—we're not getting any information on the safety of the water, even after it's been deemed safe," says Dr. Brown. "There is no long term data on MCHM, there's not even any short term data on it. There's really nothing we can be certain about."

West Virginia American Water, the largest investor-owned water utility in the state, serves more than 580,000 people. The utility company provided affected residents with protocols for flushing their piping systems so they could receive water, a recommendation that most people followed.

"Soon after they used that water that was supposedly safe, they started to develop some concerning symptoms," says Dr. Brown. "The first ones that I saw Monday afternoon were in the form of skin rashes. I had a couple patients who flushed their systems and then waited about 45 minutes. One gentleman ran his hands under the water and sustained a pretty severe rash. He had swelling of his hands, some welts and even what appeared to be a chemical burn under his wedding band."

Dr. Brown says that another patient showered after flushing his system and sustained a head-to-toe rash the covered his scalp, face and back, which the doctor said the patient described as painful and itchy and provided a burning sensation.

"As people started to drink the water, we began to see sore throats, nose bleeds, some nausea and vomiting," says Dr. Brown. "Even people with breathing difficulties had some trouble after inhaling the steam or the vapors of the water."

How easy is it to link all of these symptoms to a specific containment? Find out by listening to the full interview.


Elizabeth Brown

Produced by:

Ellen Frankman


T.J. Raphael

Comments [6]


@Steve Kistler

Really, the structure is not alarming. In particular, compare the structure of the DIHYDROTERPINEOL (menthanol) and alpha-terpineol. 3-p-menthanol (aka menthol) was approved by the FDA in foods. DIHYDROTERPINEOL is a the same that was spilled but is a tertiary alcohol with two methyl groups on the alpha carbon to the alcohol. LD50 of 5g/kg. Quite safe. MSDSs say horrible things about everything. Kidney damage, etc. Question is how much?

Or eucalyptol or menthol. It might be included in monoterpenes which occur naturally and are known such as Thujone (absinthe), pinene(pines) or camphor.

That might suggest easy absorption.

Speaking in terms of structural class, there would be little concern for truly serious issues unless in high concentrations. Rashes are associated with the class.

Jan. 16 2014 04:04 PM
Robert Thomas from Santa Clara

Steve Kistler from Columbia has commented here wisely and succinctly.

This was breathtakingly bad journalism. The chance that this compound, present in any concentration at which it ever appeared at any water tap during this incident would be responsible for eliciting the symptoms described by Dr. Brown is indistinguishable from zero.

Chemistry + Journalism ==> Fail + 48562.553X10^11kcal/mol

Cherche le cash.

Jan. 16 2014 03:41 PM
SKV from NYC

Really? You're going to ask a medical doctor whether a water company is public or private? How about doing some basic journalistic background research?

Jan. 16 2014 03:36 PM

Sounds like the water company did not take into account the water in the lines between the processing facility and customers.

Go bleed some lines and open a few hydrants.

Jan. 16 2014 03:31 PM
Bob from WV

Erin Brokovich is not a lawyer, which you claimed in the first 6 seconds of this story. She is a consultant who works for those lawyers who advertise heavily on TV and radio.

Jan. 16 2014 03:27 PM
Steve Kistler from Columbia SC

How about treating chemicals as individual things with individual characteristics that one can use to provide some idea of what sorts of biological effects they might have! MDs do not think in terms of organic chemical structures and will naturally suggest the most cautious approach. It would be so much more informative to have someone like a pharmaceutical chemist comment on these things. This compound looks like a rather inert non-ionic detergent such as might even be found in dishwashing liquid. Of course no one can know what wide-spread exposure to a specific compound show up ---- every drug has some side effects when given to a large population. But at least one could have an intelligent discussion about what one might predict based simply on the chemical properties of the specific compound.

Jan. 16 2014 09:46 AM

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