The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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May 13, 2014

Chemical spill survey finds some residents ignored tap water ban

CHARLESTON — Nearly one-fourth of Kanawha County residents responding to a health survey say they used their tap water, despite a ban, after a January chemical spill.

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department conducted the random telephone survey of 499 adults in the county from April 3 through 8.

According to the results released Monday, about 9 in 10 respondents indicated they were using their tap water, but nearly two-thirds of those indicated they still weren’t drinking it three months after the spill.

The Jan. 9 spill of the coal-cleaning agent crude MCHM from Freedom Industries’ plant into the Elk River in Charleston contaminated 300,000 people’s tap water in nine counties with licorice-smelling water. A do-not-use order lasted four to 10 days, depending on the areas where it was lifted in stages. The order allowed only flushing toilets and for dousing fires.

Still, 23 percent of respondents said they used their tap water for other purposes during the ban, including many who said they drank it. The most popular uses, in order, were bathing and showering, washing hands, clothes and dishes.

Overall, nine in 10 respondents said they tried to obtain another source of water after the spill, including bottled water from stores or free water from a distribution center in the town where they lived.

More than one-third of respondents said they had $100 or less in extra household expenses related to the chemical spill, such as water, food or child care. Nearly one-fourth said they spent between $100 and $250 and more than 15 percent said they spent $250 to $500.

After the ban was lifted, more than half of respondents felt their tap water wasn’t safe and about one-fourth felt it was. The rest didn’t know or refused to answer.

Kanawha County health officer Dr. Rahul Gupta released a portion of the results last week that found about one-third of respondents indicated a member of their household had a spill-related illness. On Monday, the results showed rashes and skin irritations were the most common symptoms.

Of those households involving a spill-related illness, about 7 in 10 respondents said they didn’t seek medical attention or advice.

The survey also asked about psychological distress. About one-third of respondents said they worried all of the time in the month after the crisis began, dropping to below 20 percent in the month leading up to the survey. During the early stages of the crisis, more than 20 percent said they weren’t worried at all, which grew to more than 40 percent in the weeks before the survey.  

Four of five respondents indicated their household learned about the spill the day it occurred. More than half found out through broadcast media outlets, and more than 10 percent each learned either through word of mouth or through an odor in the air or water.

According to the survey, 43 percent of respondents were age 65 or older, 41 percent were ages 45 to 64 and 16 percent were ages 18 to 44. Two thirds of the respondents were females and more than 40 percent indicated they were retired.

Freedom filed for bankruptcy eight days after the spill. Dozens of businesses and residents have sued Freedom over lost wages and profits during the water-use ban. Their cases remain frozen while bankruptcy proceedings continue.

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