CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A state official said Wednesday that he “can guarantee” some West Virginians are breathing in traces of a carcinogen while showering after the chemical spill, but federal health guidelines say people need to breathe “a lot of it” to be a problem.
The crude MCHM that spilled into the water supply ultimately can break down into formaldehyde, Environmental Quality Board official Scott Simonton told a state legislative panel Wednesday. He added that the breakdown can happen in the shower and that formaldehyde is most toxic when inhaled.
But University of Washington public health dean Dr. Howard Frumkin, an environmental health specialist, suggested that officials use caution when interpreting the results of the water tests, including asking whether the chemical’s presence existed before the spill.
“There’s lot of possibilities there,” he said, including the chance that formaldehyde showing up in tests isn’t a result of the chemical spill.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the chemical “can make you feel sick if you breathe a lot of it.”
Simonton called respiratory cancer the biggest risk with breathing in the chemical.
“I can guarantee that citizens in this valley are, at least in some instances, breathing formaldehyde,” Simonton said. “They’re taking a hot shower. This stuff is breaking down into formaldehyde in the shower or in the water system, and they’re inhaling it.”
Initial testing at Vandalia Grille in Charleston showed traces of the chemical in the water. Other testing showed no traces of formaldehyde, but samples are still being processed.
“The problem is, we’re seeing it in water. We don’t know what the concentration is in air.” Simonton told reporters Wednesday. “We do know that there is enough mass of that contaminant to exceed EPA safe levels in air.”
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.
Freedom Industries’ spill in Charleston spurred a water-use ban for 300,000 West Virginians, but officials have lifted it.
State officials believe the leak of crude MCHM and stripped PPH started Jan. 9. Freedom Industries has estimated 10,000 gallons of chemicals leaked from its tank.
“We know that (crude MCHM) turns into other things, and these other things are bad,” Simonton told reporters Wednesday. “And we haven’t been looking for those other things. So we can’t say the water is safe yet. We just absolutely cannot.”
According to the federal Centers for Disease, Control and Prevention, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. It is colorless, strong-smelling gas used to make building materials and household products, including walls, cabinets, and furniture.
Breathing formaldehyde in large quantities can cause sore throats, coughing, itchy eyes and nosebleeds. Symptoms also are common with other upper respiratory illnesses, such as colds, the flu and seasonal allergies. People with short-term exposure are less likely to have symptoms.
According to the CDC, the risk of health problems is low when formaldehyde levels are of 10 parts per billion. The risk is “medium” at 100 parts per billion, particularly among the elderly, young children and for those with health conditions such as asthma.
A spokeswoman for Freedom Industries did not immediately return a phone call for comment.