January 25, 2014
Dear Residents Affected by the Water Crisis,
My research team has received over 20 e-mail messages and telephone calls from you in the last week regarding the West Virginia Water Crisis. At the end of this post, you can read some of those messages, which demonstrate the great need, gratitude, and sadly, fear that many of you are experiencing. Because the number of these messages exceeds our ability to respond quickly, we have compiled a list of the 10 most commonly asked questions below. Please contact us if you have other questions not answered below. Ms. Krista Bryson, a Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State University also contributed to this information. Ms. Bryson worked with us to put together a “how to flush your plumbing system” video and the below information.
This flood of questions from residents brings to light the importance of having credible, trustworthy, and transparent scientists and engineers involved in a disaster response of this magnitude. Please feel free to ask any other questions and check back at our website for updates on our drinking water testing results conducted on water found inside the homes of those in affected areas. We recognize there is still a great need for answers in West Virginia and will do everything in our power to come back to West Virginia in about one month to conduct further testing.
Andy Whelton, Ph.D.
University of South Alabama
[For maximum distribution, this information is also posted on The Whelton Group website]
The 10 Most Commonly Asked Questions from Residents Affected
by the West Virginia Drinking Water Crisis Answered
1. Should I flush my plumbing system if I have not yet done so? I have heard there are individuals advising residents not to flush their plumbing systems at all.
My advice, as an environmental engineer with experience designing and troubleshooting water systems and plumbing materials, is to flush your plumbing system immediately. However, do not use the exact flushing guidance endorsed by the West Virginia Bureau of Health. Instead, use the modified guidance we issued in response to chemical exposure reports of those who followed the West Virginia Bureau of Health guidance.
Flushing is critical to your plumbing system because the longer you allow the contaminated water to sit stagnant, the more problems your building may experience. Chemicals may break down and transform into more or less toxic compounds, pipes could be damaged by water contact, and plumbing materials could be permeated by those chemicals and other compounds. Disease causing organisms can also begin to grow and take up residence in your pipes. There are many more potential consequences. Unfortunately, there is little information available to describe the consequences of allowing your plumbing system to sit idle with the specific contaminated drinking water that affected your community.
2. How should I flush my plumbing system?
Step 1. Shut-off your hot water heater. Let that water cool down. Chemicals will evaporate faster into your building from hot water than from cold water.
Step 2. Open all exterior windows and doors to ventilate your building, BEFORE you start flushing. Find your floor fans and position them so that any air near the faucets, bathrooms, etc. can be pushed outside. If you have limited fans, try to flush one faucet at a time. You want to get the chemical odor out of your house when you flush. If one of your drains is clogged or drains slowly, do not stand inside that room while flushing. Check back frequently so that you do not let the water overflow.
Step 3. Flush your hot water faucets using the West Virginia Bureau of Health endorsed guidance. Remember, you should have shut off your hot water heater.
Step 4. Flush your cold water faucets using the West Virginia Bureau of Health endorsed guidance.
You will note that Steps 3 and 4 are similar to the guidelines endorsed by the West Virginia Bureau of Health. Steps 1 and 2 were not and have not been mentioned by the Bureau of Health to date. However, Steps 1 and 2 are important to limit chemicals from accumulating in your house during flushing.
You may have rooms that do not have working overhead fans, doors, or windows. For those rooms you want to make certain when the faucets are flushed that you have set up floor or nearby window fans to remove the contaminated air. Flush the water and flush-out that air.
If you live in a building that does not allow you access to your hot water heater, contact the building owner. They would be responsible for the hot water heater and could tell you when they last flushed it. If you still have questions contact a representative of the West Virginia Bureau of Health.
3. If my neighbors don’t flush at all or only flush once, will the contaminated water ever get out of the water supply?
This question is complex. Flushing once is the West Virginia Bureau of Health’s recommendation. At some point, flushing should remove the chemicals that remain inside the water supply system. However, in 1980, a drinking water contamination incident required 9 months of flushing to remove the chemical from water pipes buried below the ground. It is possible that the chemicals inside Charleston West Virginia’s drinking water system will require 9 months to flush out. The key is for researchers to determine where the chemical remains, if it degraded, how it interacted with the plumbing systems, and how much remains at drinking water taps inside houses. We are not aware of any data that predicts exactly how long it will take to remove the chemicals from the affected drinking water system.
4. How many residents haven’t flushed their plumbing systems?
Today, I’m not certain. On Monday, January 20 the West Virginia Governor’s office did not know either. Of the people we interviewed in the affected area (January 17-22), 7 out of 10 had not flushed their plumbing system. Other residents told us they “partially” flushed and hoped to get around to finishing their flush soon. All people we spoke with lived in all different areas of Charleston and had varying income levels. Today, I found out that one resident has not flushed his plumbing system at all, leaving the contaminated water stagnant in their plumbing for 17 days.
To determine how many buildings still contain contaminated water inside their plumbing systems, West Virginia officials could mobilize the National Guard or staff from another government agency to go door-to-door and determine who has and has not flushed their plumbing system. Our interviews and the emails we continue to receive indicate that there are still individuals who have not flushed, and have no intention of flushing. Because the public health and plumbing system integrity consequences of not flushing are simply unknown, this is a concern for everyone.
5. Who is responsible for making sure everyone has flushed their systems? What should they be doing to ensure our safety?
It is the responsibility of the West Virginia Bureau of Health to ensure that the plumbing systems and the water inside resident’s homes are safe. We know this because when you make building plumbing system modifications, you must obtain a permit from them and their inspectors check to make certain everything is up to code.
So far, there has been little to no drinking water testing inside homeowner residences by the West Virginia Bureau of Health. Most of the drinking water testing has been carried out at fire hydrants (that convey cold water and empty into well-ventilated areas, much different from the flushing procedures they recommended for residents) and government buildings. Understanding chemical levels in fire hydrants is certainly important because that water would eventually make its way into resident homes. But, simply testing fire hydrants assumes that drinking water quality in plumbing systems and hydrants is the same. That assumption has not been proven.
No one from the West Virginia Bureau of Health is monitoring chemical levels inside the resident’s homes from what we gathered from our interviews, continued discussions with government officials, and nonprofits who are still distributing bottled water.
My personal discussions with a few federal officials tangentially involved in the handling of the water crisis revealed that the interaction between the chemicals and the plumbing system had not been considered as of Wednesday, January 22. Because I told a few colleagues in the federal government to consider the plumbing system – chemical interaction issue and they agreed, it is now at least being discussed. If officials involved in this response do not have the expertise needed, they should engage folks like us who do.
Finally, there has been no timetable issued for how long is needed to remove the chemicals from the drinking water supply or how much flushing water per month is needed. From what I understand, that is because officials have not seriously investigated the issue of plumbing system contamination. I would have expected that by now this type of testing would be underway.
In response to resident questions about flushing, our research team has begun unfunded experiments in our laboratory to address these issues.
6. Would a new home filtration unit remove this chemical?
If the building plumbing system is contaminated, the installation of a home filtration system may not have much value in removing the 4-MCHM chemical or other chemicals within water before it entered the building. Parts or all of the existing plumbing system could require decontamination or replacement if chemical binding or permeation with the plumbing system materials is significant. Decontamination actions could simply include clean tap water flushing or could potentially be more complex. There is simply not enough public information available.
If the building plumbing system turned out not to be contaminated, but the incoming tap water was contaminated, some treatment devices, but not all, would be effective at removing the chemicals. These devices however would include long-term operation and maintenance costs. As a consumer, be aware that there are equipment vendors approaching the government and homeowners, selling water treatment devices in the wake of this event. It is your responsibility and in your best interest as a consumer to protect yourself by investigating any claims made by these vendors about their equipment’s ability to safeguard your water.
7. Despite the drinking water being declared safe to drink except for pregnant women and children under 3 years old, is it safe to cook with, drink, or bathe with?
I am not certain how to answer because critical drinking water quality data has not been published and there are many variables involved when it comes to the different ways people expose themselves and the ways different people react to the same chemicals. If officials do not have the scientific data to justify the “safe” declaration under the aforementioned conditions then they need to come out and declare this. Affected residents want to make the best decisions to protect their family. They want data and transparency.
8. Is it safe to do laundry or bathe with water from the affected areas? What if the person is pregnant?
To my knowledge, no data exists that describes whether or not the chemicals within the contaminated water bind to clothing or if those chemicals could then be released onto skin when clothes are worn.
The bathing issue raises several possible exposure routes including inhaling vapors, absorbing chemicals through the skin, and ingestion (accidental, as may happen with children in the bath). To my knowledge, no testing has been conducted inside affected homes.
For pregnant women and children under 3 years old, I recommend those persons follow the advice of the Centers for Disease (CDC) control for their contact with the water.
9. If children or adults are exposed to the water could they get cancer?
I defer to the public health community to provide advice here. Disease is a complex issue, and you should contact qualified medical professionals about these types of questions. The West Virginia Bureau of Health consists of credentialed medical professionals. As an Environmental Engineer I can describe chemical fate, breakdown, reactions with other compounds in the water, plumbing system materials, and air exposure levels, among other topics. I am not qualified to advise you on whether exposure to this chemical may cause cancer.
Clearly, it is difficult to find an answer to this question from anyone because government officials definition of “safe” and the medical community’s response to visits prompted by exposure to the contaminated water are not as transparent as they should be. This is partially because there is little known information on the health effects of exposure to this chemical, and simply the other chemicals that may be in the drinking water.
10. Will chemical levels in my home plumbing with plastic differ from my neighbors who have copper pipes?
We simply do not know because there is no data to answer this question. Officials have neglected to test drinking water within private homes wherein the residents would most likely be exposed to chemicals during water use. Instead, officials have mainly relied on fire hydrants and government buildings, not typically where residents take baths/showers, cook dinner, and brush their teeth, etc.
In my opinion, residents who live in buildings that have metal drinking water pipes will have very different experiences than residents who live in buildings that contain plastic drinking water pipes. During our visit (January 17-22) we inspected many indoor plumbing systems. Some were fully copper, cPVC plastic, PEX plastic, while others were a mixture of copper, iron, cPVC plastic, PEX plastic, and PB plastic materials. Based on our ongoing testing, we believe that plastics in the Charleston area have the potential to be permeated by some of the chemicals reported. The rate of permeation in Charleston residences however may be minimal for some plastics and greater for others. Metal plumbing systems typically become corroded and chemicals could interact with those surfaces. Lack of data pertaining to the contaminated water makes drawing any definitive conclusions difficult. If you are unsure about what type of pipes you have in your home, you can consult the paper one of our graduate students wrote regarding plastic pipes in houses across the US, here.
In response to the lack of information about plumbing systems, our research team has begun additional unfunded experiments in our laboratory to address these issues.
For medical advice, please contact your family physician or another credentialed medical professional. I am a civil/environmental engineer who understands chemical fate, degradation, transport, water treatment, plumbing systems, and exposure routes. Medical professionals can best address questions regarding the consequences of chemical exposure and health. It is my impression the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health should operate in this capacity. However, I am not aware of any effort by that organization or State government to go door-to-door like our team did last week to address concerns raised by the affected residents.
SELECT MESSAGES FROM RESIDENTS
January 24, 2014: Hello, my name is [XXXXX], I am involved in the water contamination in WV. I have not been using the water and am very concerned about bathing my children in the water. I am pregnant and want to make safe choices for my family, I am just not sure what is safe. In your professional opinion, would it be safe to do laundry and bathe in the water? we don’t intend to cook with it nor drink it. Thank you so much
January 24, 2014: Hello! I just saw your video about the water crisis in WV. It was on a friend’s facebook page. I live in Charleston, WV with my husband and 2 children. I was born and raised here and am so thankful for your work! Are you still here? We are, now, hearing that another chemical was leaked along with the original one. We are also being told that the ppm thought to be safe is not actually safe. I flushed when we were told, but am still not using the water for drinking, cooking, or bathing. I feel there should be access to free bottled water until the chemicals are 0 ppm. It is so confusing and frightening. Will my children get cancer one day from all this? We still just don’t know who to trust and what to do!! Your video made me feel that you really care and that you actually might be able to give us accurate information.
January 24, 2014: Dr. Whelton, I appreciate your presence here and would love to meet with you if you have time to see if there is any way I can assist you. My interest is personal, not professional as I do not have (nor do I anticipate having) any clients involved …..
January 24, 2014: Good Morning Dr. Whelton, I have seen your video posted on youtube regarding the recent water crisis here in WV. In my opinion this is a tragic event that has the good people of WV paralyzed as we try to make the right decisions for our health and the health of our loved ones. I, personally have flushed my home twice, once by running the faucets as instructed by WVAW company…then as I thought more and more I decided to drain our hot water tank and flush out all of our pipes again. We still smell the licorice odor in our water. It may be a little better but, not much. I have talked to my neighbors some of which have not flushed at all and some who say they only flushed once and will not do any more. My question to you is if this continues and not everyone is flushing and/or continues to flush will this ever get out of our water supply? I would also like to ask your opinion on a entire home filtration system? (sand filter and such)..this will cost me quite a bit of money however, I DO NOT feel our water supply is safe for cooking or drinking as well as bathing my children in it. If you have the time to answer my questions I would be eternally grateful. Also, if I get a filtration for the entire home will it catch this type of chemical? [XXXXX] contact me about this situation.
January 23, 2014: Good evening Dr. Whelton, Thank you for the efforts you and your team of volunteers are devoting to effects of the chemical spill here in Charleston. Neither the water company not the government are offering any information about how the contaminant chemicals react with the plumbing and other materials with which they came in contact. When we flushed our plumbing a week ago a faintly greenish blue crystalline substance came out of our tub faucet.We immediately called the water company and reported the substance. We were told the water company would send someone out in 1 to 4 hours to take a sample. No one showed.
Four days later we got a phone call from a water company representative who identified himself as a chemist. He could not tell, nor would he speculate, what the crystalline substance might be. He could not tell us whether it was toxic or an irritant. At one point he speculated that the chemical could have reacted with the copper in our plumbing, but he would not offer any ideas as to what chemical reactions could have occurred. When I told him we had a right to know what potential hazards are presented by reactions between the contaminants and materials in our house he suggested that we have testing performed at our own expense.
Setting aside the insensitive and cavalier nature of his suggestion I would be glad to send you a sample of the crystalline substance for analysis. Can you and your team give us any idea as to what possible chemical reaction products, if any, may have resulted from the contamination?
Any information you can provide would be most welcome. We can’t get answers from the water company or the government entities involved in the aftermath of the spill. Given the lack of answers to our questions we are not drinking or cooking with the tap water, and are limiting our contact with it in bathing. Please help us understand what potential harmful exposure, if any, we may be facing as a result of chemical retains between the contaminants and our plumbing.
If there is anything we can do to assist you in your efforts please let us know. Very truly yours,
January 23, 2014: My name is [XXXXXX] and I live in Culloden, WV, the only area impacted in Cabell County by the chemical contamination of the Elk River. I have been in contact with [XXXXXXX] who advised us not to flush our system yet. I was listening to your interview today which was posted by one of my friends and you advise definitely to flush. We are sending samples to [XXXXXXX], of preflush, midflush and postflush samples. We were just waiting to gather all the new information about the PPH chemical that has now been made known to have leaked.
One of my concerns is the fact that during a normal flushing of fire hydrants, the water company advises us to flush the cold water until it runs clear and not use the hot water until the cold is clean. In this new instance, we are told to flush the hot water first by running the hot water for 15 mins. I have written and called WVAMW to find out what the difference is, but to date no one has contacted me and it has been over a week. Could you please advise which is the proper way to do this. My grandchildren come here every day after school (5 and 7 yrs of age) and I have a 15 month old grandson who also comes here, as well as my son and daughter-in-law who is pregnant. They also live in Culloden. My husband has had multiple operations for cancer and has to have another exploratory one, so we are indeed concerned.
If you could contact me with the information, it would be greatly appreciated.[XXXXXXX] If you would like to come to our home prior to our flushing and would like to take samples, that would be great. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and for coming to West Virginia to do research and help us during this crisis.
January 22, 2014: Andrew, good work in West Virginia. Good article! Elk River was a massive spill vs Camp LeJeune was a drip , drip , drip for 30+ years. As a Camp LeJeune Marine to you,… any advocacy and publicity about Camp LeJeune would be appreciated. I’ve written to many officials, elected, DOD VA ect.. with little effect. They have left the Marines on their own to die. Speak for us when you can. They will listen to you. [XXXXX]
January 21, 2014: Hello, fist things first. Thank you for coming to West Virginia. I would like to know your thoughts on my situation. I helped a neighbor flush his home as soon as the flush order was given. I found the opposite in my interactions with people. The people I spoke with seemed more hopeful that the flush would bring everything back to normal. I on the other hand think until all tanks and soil are removed from spill site it is not “normal”.
Upon flushing a home that had just been given the notice to flush I noticed the persistent sweet smell of the chemical. I took the opportunity to flush the hot water tanks in the home at this time as well. Ran the water for some time in all sinks and outside spigot. The whole time smelling the tainted water.
I waited a couple of days and flushed my home the same as the previous home. I did however notice along with the buildup in the hot water tank a blueish tinted substance. This came out of both hot water tanks. It is now 1/21/2014 and when I turn my water on I still smell the chemical in my water. I am not using the water for anything but flushing toilets.
Since our government SUCKS SO BAD I have never even been able to find a water tanker for bulk fresh water in the City of Charleston. This despite calling city, county and Nation Guard. Our government is the number one cause of this problem. They are the ONLY ones with the authority to have entered this facility and demand tank inspections and inquire about chemicals stored at the site. And to state the obvious…chemicals stored a mile or two upstream from water source??
Do you know what other chemicals are mixed in with the 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol? I have seen reports that 15 to 20 percent of the mixture are other types of chemicals. Lastly the 1 part per million. Do you believe that adding one drop of the chemical concoction to 13 gallons of water (I think this is roughly 1 to 1M) would really produce water that smelled so strongly of the chemicals? I just can not believe it would.
January 20, 2014: Thank you so much for helping us! It is terrible here, the state government is not being honest with us and is dismissing the adverse effects and sicknesses people are experiencing after using the water. We all know the water is not safe and we do not know what to do. BLESS YOU FOR YOUR HELP.
January 20, 2014: What about those homes owned by people who spend the winters in the south? If they have no plans to return until spring how will their contaminated lines affect everyone else’s
January 20, 2014: Yes, there’s a bit of misleading info out there. To be honest, I’m not even convinced that the water supply is even safe today, fully flushed system or not. Thankfully, I live in Virginia. My rural water supply comes from a well, and I’m on a mountain. When you consider that over 300,000 rural folks can’t have wells and have to have water piped in due to crap groundwater (poisoned by corporations), and then that piped in water is poisoned by the same corporations, it all makes you wonder if the water will ever be truly safe. I feel for the people of West Virginia right now.
January 20, 2014: I am a Boone County, WV Resident caught in the middle of the chemical debachle. Would like to know what the Oily residue is that is present in the water system AFTER Flushing?? I have yet to hear any comments on this from anywhere.
January 20, 2014: We were out of town when the spill happened and did not come home until 3 days later. When we arrived home, my husband shut off the water at the water meter so that none on the bad water could enter our lines. We have NOT used any of the water until this evening. We were told that the only line that we need to flush out is the outside faucet. Is this correct or do we need to flush out all of them?
January 20, 2014: Thank you all for coming here to help!