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WV TAP research determines Kanawha Valley water is 'safe'

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The team appointed and paid for by the state government to implement more studies on crude MCHM and PPH met to discuss a new screening level, and to determine whether the water for the 300,000 residents affected by the Jan. 9 chemical spill is in fact "safe."

Team members said they have more information, but their contract expires May 15.

While signing Senate Bill 373, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin noted WV TAP (the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project) for doing "unprecedented research" and work throughout the water crisis.

"(Their information) will provide us with valuable information as we move forward," Tomblin said. 

The team met earlier in the day April 1 at West Virginia State University to discuss in more detail their findings.

WV TAP experts said the screening level determined by the CDC, although a good start, could have come down.

The CDC determined the "safe" screening level for crude MCHM to be 1,000 parts per billion, while the WV TAP team came to the conclusion that 120 parts per billion was safe.

"Sometimes humans are more resistant," said Michael Dourson, a scientist with Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment in Cincinnati, Ohio. "The underlying biology is so imprecise, that's why we use these large safety factors to project downwards."

The team of experts said they were comfortable with saying the level they determined was safe, a word most public officials involved in the chemical spill shied away from.

The levels the team came up with focus on a 28-day exposure, although the experts said they were comfortable with saying any long-term health effects including mutations would not result from exposure to either MCHM or PPH.

Dourson said the Material Safety Data Sheets, which were used by other officials to determine the safe levels of MCHM — although helpful — were not necessarily useful in a spill of this caliber.

"A spill situation is not the same," he said. "What we received last night was medical findings and community hospital visits that we just got yesterday."

Dourson said when the team received the information, the irritation was at a high dose, so they focused on a 28-day study which would focus on ingestion, not necessarily the raw chemical.

Dourson said the information came from hospitals who were accepting patients with irritations.

"Even though they weren't tied to exposure, we were of the opinion that's of concern and that's why we're going to have an exposure scenario not just directly related to water," Dourson said. "What was new is we saw (the West Virginia hospital) data, and that caused us to consider other sources of exposure."

The level the WV TAP team came up with was 120 parts per billion.

"So long-term, we don't expect mutation or cancer," Dourson said. "All chemicals will cause damage; the question then becomes what level is safe for long-term? We didn't have long-term studies."

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Cabinet Secretary Karen Bowling issued a statement April 1 about the WV TAP panel, saying DHHR has historically partnered with and relied on the medical expertise of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the DHHR appreciates the work done by the WVTAP health panel.

"It's clearly an affirmation that our water is safe and the CDC's calculation at the time of the incident was appropriate," Bowling said. "Our No. 1 goal has been, and continues to be, to protect the citizens affected by this unprecedented event."