CHARLESTON, West Virginia — The smell lingers — the slightly sweet, slightly bitter odor of a chemical that contaminated the water supply of West Virginia’s capital more than a week ago. It creeps out of faucets and shower heads. It wafts from the Elk River, the site of the spill. Sometimes it hangs in the cold nighttime air.
For several days, a majority of Charleston-area residents have been told their water is safe to drink, that the concentration of a chemical used to wash coal is so low that it won’t be harmful. Restaurants have reopened — using tap water to wash dishes and produce, clean out their soda fountains and make ice.
But as long as people can still smell it, they remain wary — and given the lack of knowledge about the chemical known as MCHM, some experts say their caution is justified.
“I would certainly be waiting until I couldn’t smell it anymore, certainly to be drinking it,” said Richard Denison, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund who has followed the spill closely. “I don’t blame people at all for raising questions and wondering whether they can trust what’s being told to them.”
The Jan. 9 spill from a Freedom Industries facility on the banks of the Elk River, less than 2 miles upstream from Charleston’s water treatment plant, led to a ban on water use that affected 300,000 people. On Friday, Freedom Industries filed for bankruptcy protection, temporarily shielding it from dozens of lawsuits, many by businesses that were forced to shut down.
Four days later, officials started to lift the ban in one area after another, saying tap water was safe for drinking because the concentration of the chemical had dipped below one part per million, even though the smell was still strong at that level. By Friday afternoon, nearly all of the people impacted had been told the water was safe.
Late Wednesday, however, health officials issued different guidance for pregnant women, urging them not to drink tap water until the chemical is entirely undetectable. The federal Centers for Disease Control said it made that recommendation out of an abundance of caution because existing studies don’t provide a complete picture of how the chemical affects humans.
For Sarah Bergstrom, a 29-year-old nurse who is four months pregnant with her second child, the news was devastating. She hasn’t drunk the water since the spill, but she has taken showers.
“I cried myself to sleep (Wednesday) night. I was both angry and scared,” she said. “This baby that we’ve wanted for so long, I’m now questioning — have I done something that could have harmed her?”
Bergstrom said she’s fortunate that she can afford bottled water, which she intends to use for the foreseeable future.
“My biggest fear is for those mothers, those pregnant women out there who aren’t able to go get enough bottled water for their family, who don’t have the resources and don’t have the knowledge base to know that this is not safe,” she said.
Karen Bowling, West Virginia’s secretary of Health and Human Resources, said pregnant women who drank the water before being told to avoid it should contact their doctors. For the rest of the population, Bowling said she is confident the tap water is not harmful.
“It’s understandable that people are concerned. I don’t want to minimize anybody’s feelings about an issue as sensitive as this,” said Bowling, who said she drank the tap water after it was declared safe. “It’s hard to instill confidence when there’s little known about the chemical, but at the same time we have to trust in the science of what’s happening.”
According to the state’s health department, 411 patients have been treated at hospitals for symptoms that patients said came from exposure to the chemical, and 20 people have been admitted. Also, more than 1,600 people have called poison control to complain of symptoms. Bowling said the department is trying to sort out how many of those patients were actually sickened by the chemical, and not by other diseases.
Given the uncertainty, many people in this coal-dependent swath of central West Virginia known as Chemical Valley say avoiding the water is a prudent decision.