Is It Really Safe? Testing West Virginia's Water

After the Jan. 9 chemical spill into West Virginia's Elk River, more than 300,000 people lost access to clean, safe drinking water. Government authorities have said the water is now "usable" for all purposes including drinking, but many residents say they don't trust the water.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The water has been contaminated for residents in nine counties. At a congressional hearing in West Virginia, their representatives demanded the answer to that simple question we asked earlier: Is the water safe?

Here's Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito questioning the state's commissioner of public health, Letitia Tierney.

REPRESENTATIVE SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: Dr. Tierney, is the water safe to drink?

DR. LETITIA TIERNEY: That's, in a way, a difficult thing to say because everybody has a different definition of safe. Am I confident in the science? I believe the water, based on the standards we have, is usable for every purpose, and that includes drinking, bathing and cooking.

RATH: Dr. Rahul Gupta is a public health official at the local level. He's the executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County Health Departments. He says the confusing and conflicting guidance from state and federal officials has made life very difficult.

DR. RAHUL GUPTA: It may be a four-letter term, but it is part of the federal law, the Safe Drinking Water Act. It is not Appropriate Drinking Water Act. It is not OK Drinking Water Act. Is it safe or is it not safe? And we just, at a local level, don't have the tools to make that determination. We really depend on our state and federal partners. And we continue to seek answers for that one question.

RATH: Many residents are disturbed by the lingering telltale sign of chemicals in their water: an oddly sweet smell.

DR. ANDREW WHELTON: If you go to the store and you get a package of the black licorice - I think the packages have 20 licorice sticks in it - you open that up and you take a big sniff, that's exactly what the water smells like in some of these houses.

RATH: That's Andrew Whelton. He's a professor at the University of South Alabama, and he's part of an independent team that this past week started testing the water at people's homes. He says there are a lot of unknowns about the water, including the fact that there's very little information on how MCHM affects human health.

WHELTON: There's only a few studies that have been conducted on rats and animals, and none of the studies have any human data associated with them or even juvenile animals. There simply isn't much data available to really sure up what levels are completely safe for individuals.

RATH: Authorities in West Virginia have been testing the water from the beginning of the crisis. Could you explain why it's important to test the water in people's homes, in individual homes in this way?

WHELTON: The authorities in West Virginia have been testing water at fire hydrants, schools and hospitals since the beginning of the crisis. It's important to test inside people's homes because the materials that are used to transport water and to store water outside the homes are very different than those materials that are used to transport water and store water inside the home. Simply put, there's little to no information about what happens to, for example, this contaminated water once it went into people's houses.

RATH: Dr. Whelton, where does the testing go from here, and when will we have more results?

WHELTON: In the next three weeks, we will have been on the ground and we will have collected all of the data from the 10 homes. And we'll - at that point, we'll have shipped water samples throughout the country. And so we're looking at at least a month, if not a month and a half to two months before we'll really have some definitive results.

RATH: That was Andrew Whelton. Along with his colleague Jeffrey Rosen from Corona Environmental Consulting, he's leading a group thoroughly testing the tap water at people's homes. As he says, it will be at least a month before they get results. Meanwhile, the crisis has already done real psychological damage. Dr. Rahul Gupta.

GUPTA: What we are seeing is obviously a lot of anxiety, panic in some people, anger and frustration. Just a week ago, we've had up to 14 schools in a day report complaints of odors. The day prior to that, we had two schools we had to close. The following day after that, we had three schools, but there were about 14 schools on the verge of closure. This is all having some cumulative impact on psychological aspects of our children as well as adults. And I think it's important to not neglect to monitor these.

RATH: Dr. Gupta, from where you're sitting right now, how long do you think this crisis is going to last?

GUPTA: Well, it needed to be over several weeks ago. It is still continuing. We are hoping that a number of activities can be put in place by our leaders that will help and allow people to heal and to ensure to the public that their water in their taps is safe. It is very critical. I cannot emphasize enough that people need to know that their water coming out of their taps is safe.

RATH: That was Dr. Rahul Gupta. He says people in West Virginia have been left to make their own decisions about whether to use the water. But when authorities won't directly answer if the water is safe, that's no easy choice. This is NPR News.

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