CDC: symptoms ‘consistent’ with chemical health effects

April 23, 2014 by Dave Boucher

Symptoms reported by hundreds of people following the recent chemical contamination of tap water that affected 300,000 people  are “consistent” with what is known about the main chemical involved in the leak, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state Bureau for Public Health.

Freedom pic“The result of these studies and the reported symptoms are exactly what was expected,” said Loretta Haddy, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

“Nothing new was found other than what we thought would be a resulting symptom as a result of MCHM.”

Although the  agencies were quick to point out the review of medical charts could not “prove” MCHM sent hundreds to the hospital seeking help, it’s the most definitive word yet from the federal agency as to a correlation between touching or inhaling the chemical resulting in negative health affects.

“There are no laboratory tests or combination of signs and symptoms that can reliably distinguish mild illness caused by exposure to MCHM from mild illness,” said a report from the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry and the state Bureau for Public Health.

“These data cannot ‘prove’ that MCHM caused the reported symptoms; however, these data are consistent with what is known about MCHM from animal studies.”

On Jan. 9 the state discovered thousands of gallons of MCHM and other chemicals leaking from a faulty storage tank owned by Freedom Industries. The chemicals seeped into the Elk River, eventually overwhelming the local water treatment plant and sending tainted water to more than 15 percent of West Virginians.

The state issued a “do not use” order for the water late Jan. 9, but it came hours after the first reports of the tell tall licorice odor association with MCHM were received. People began going to hospitals reporting of nausea, itching, skin irritation and other symptoms they were convinced came as a result of coming into contact with contaminated water.

For weeks many people in the nine-county affected area–including Kanawha-Charleston Health Department head Dr. Rahul Gupta–said it was clear the spill and subsequent contamination caused some negative health affects.

However, the CDC and the state would not say whether the chemical had any negative health affect until it completed an “epi-aid” study, or a review of medical records collected for those who went to the hospital complaining of potentially chemical-related symptoms.

In releasing the long awaited results of that review today, the CDC also emphasized most of those seeking help at the hospital were quickly treated and released.

“Symptoms associated with exposure to low levels of MCHM in this public water system appeared to be mild and resolved with no or minimal treatment, such as IV fluids after episodes of vomiting or diarrhea and/or medications to relieve nausea or itching,” the report states.

Previously the state Department of Health and Human Resources said their chemical spill-related health data showed 533 people were treated and released from the hospital while 26 were admitted with potentially related symptoms. In the report issued today though, the CDC and the bureau say only 369 of the total 584 records were included for review.

The CDC and state compared the records with “known health effects” of MCHM, data from the West Virginia Poison Center and animal studies. All of this information, including details warning of possible negative health affects from the chemical’s manufacturer, were available within days of the spill.

For 110 of 215 records not included, the emergency department records “did not record exposure to the contaminated water,” according to the report. The agencies dismissed other records because people left without seeing a doctor or the hospital determined a cause it considered more likely for the symptoms than the spill.

The report says most people who reported negative symptoms complained of nausea and said they came into contact with the chemical through bathing, showering or other skin contact. However, the analysis also shows people who experienced negative symptoms after inhaling the chemical.

The CDC’s original barometer for how much MCHM could be in the water–in addition to only accounting for an exposure of “less than 14 days, per the CDC–did not take into account potential exposure from inhalation. The material safety data sheet, a form required of every chemical maker for its products, warns of possible negative health affects from touching or breathing in vapors from the coal processing chemical.

The report again uses a line of thinking that some of the people reporting symptoms actually suffered from the flu or other mild illnesses not related to the leak.

“These symptoms are consistent with known health effects of MCHM and with data reported by West Virginia Poison Center. It was possible that the symptoms reported to be caused by exposure to MCHM could have been caused by other mild clinical illness such as colds or flu or other viral infections,” the report states.

Gupta has repeatedly said its naive to assume the mass amounts of complaints were not in some part affiliated with the massive chemical leak.

He and Professor Andy Whelton or the University of South Alabama both recently estimated roughly 100,000 people experienced some symptoms related to the spill. Most of those people did not go to the hospital though, which could make a review that only includes hospital records misleading, they argue.

The state has repeatedly said it can’t move forward with considering long-term medical monitoring until it has the results of the CDC’s epi-aid study. With these results now, the bureau must await results of its own survey results. The state contacted more than 800 local physicians to ask about people who sought treatment for symptoms they believed connected to the spill, and also conducted a survey.

The bureau doesn’t anticipate having all of the information until June.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. D-W.Va., “urged” the CDC and state to continue studying the short term and long term health affects resulting from the spill.

“After nearly four months, West Virginians still have palpable concerns and feel unsettled frustration about the safety of their water. West Virginians deserve all their questions answered, as well as comprehensive recommendations on future actions.,” Manchin said.

A CDC representative who was scheduled to take questions during today’s conference call did not participate in the media briefing on the report. A CDC spokeswoman did not immediately respond to several requests for comment.


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