CHARLESTON - For two weeks following a January chemical spill into the public water supply, hundreds of West Virginians examined in emergency rooms had ailments consistent with exposure to the chemical, health officials said Wednesday.
Federal toxic substance experts and the state Bureau for Public Health stopped short of saying that their analysis determined without a doubt that patients' problems stemmed from chemical contact.
The Freedom Industries tank leak into the Elk River on Jan. 9 spurred a tap-water ban for 300,000 people for four to 10 days. After the spill, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quickly crafted a safety standard, which used limited lab rat research and accounted for two weeks of exposure.
About 53 percent of patients had issues after bathing, showering, hand-washing and other skin contact with the water. Almost 15 percent reported problems after breathing in chemical vapors, such as in the shower.
None of those methods of contact factored into CDC's safety benchmark, which focused solely on the harmful effects of consuming the chemical. The analysis noted that 44 percent of those seen in emergency rooms during the two weeks under study reported consuming the chemical.
The state didn't give skin or airborne contact much credence, either. In a Jan. 18 conference call, state health officer Dr. Letitia Tierney attributed hospital visits not to chemical exposure, but to the flu season, viruses, anxiety, stirred-up sediment from flushing pipes and the consequences of not using soap and water amid the water ban.
Emergency room visits spiked starting Jan. 15, two days after a first wave of people were told to flush their home systems and use their water again. Skin problems were predominant, said Dr. Loretta Haddy, state epidemiologist.
"After there was increased skin contact after the flushing, we saw an increase in the number of symptoms that were rashes and itching,"Haddy said.
The chemical levels in the water that day should not have caused health problems, according to CDC standards. At the water plant, crude MCHM showed up in treated water at 4 parts per billion, or 250 times lower than the CDC's safe water standard.
"There is no evidence to indicate that MCHM levels below the laboratory limit of detection of 10 (parts per billion) would result in any adverse health effects for any segment of the population," CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden said Monday in an email.
Three people were hospitalized, however, and 111 went to the emergency room Jan. 15-17.
Symptoms over two weeks meshed with animal study findings on the main spilled chemical, crude MCHM. The ailments - including nausea, vomiting, headaches, rashes and sore throats - mostly needed no treatment, the report said. Some required IVs and medication.
Thirteen people were hospitalized, but had existing chronic conditions, such as kidney, liver and lung disease.
Officials cautioned that colds, flus and viruses could have caused the issues. But 45 reports were specifically excluded because other diagnoses, like the flu, better applied. For various reasons, 215 total emergency room reports were ruled out, leaving 369 in question.
"We're not aware of any other significant public health epidemic that impacted during that week other than this event," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, Kanawha County health officer.
Gupta said the impact was much more widespread. He estimated Tuesday that about 92,500 people felt some health impacts from the spill and only 40 percent went to a doctor. University of South Alabama researcher Andrew Whelton came up with a similar number: 108,800.