Marshall University scientist says formaldehyde in Charleston water likely was from spill

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tests show trace amounts of formaldehyde in water pumping through pipes in areas recently affected by a massive chemical spill.

The formaldehyde likely is a byproduct of the chemical involved in the leak, said Dr. Scott Simonton, a Marshall University professor and the vice chairman of the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board.

"What we know scares us, and we know there's a lot more we don't know," Simonton told lawmakers Wednesday morning.

Officials believe crude MCHM and PPH started leaking into the Elk River on or before Jan. 9. Within hours of Freedom Industries, the company that owned the leaking tank, reporting the spill, 300,000 West Virginians were told not to drink their water.

Simonton said they've expected the chemicals involved to breakdown after the spill. Chemicals can break down -- turn into other chemicals based on their composition -- after coming in contact with water, air, skin, sunlight or a slew of other objects.

One of those products Simonton said he and fellow experts expected was formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is found in many different consumer products, including cigarettes, makeup, fertilizers and preserved food, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's not safe for drinking or breathing, Simonton said. He did not immediately know the amount that could be safely ingested or inhaled.

Simonton and his team, with funding from law firm Thompson and Barney, started testing water samples for formaldehyde shortly after the spill was announced.

Thompson and Barney is one of many firms involved in litigation against Freedom and others associated with the spill.

They tested in a variety of areas around the valley: Simonton said he didn't know the number of samples off the top of his head. He said they just received results from a sample taken from Vandalia Grille, a restaurant in downtown Charleston.

He didn't know the exact amount off the top of his head, and said they collected the sample on the day downtown Charleston was told it could flush its pipes by West Virginia American Water Co.

The water company told this area, the first area "cleared," it could start flushing Jan. 13.

"Frankly, the formaldehyde has me, personally, a little freaked out," Simonton said.

Simonton said he also thought the formaldehyde could pose a health risk if inhaled.

Data from the U.S. Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the CDC, says the federal Environmental Protection Agency believes "exposure to formaldehyde in drinking water at concentrations of 10 parts per million (ppm) for 1 day or 5 ppm for 10 days is not expected to cause any adverse effects in a child."

"OSHA set a legal limit of 0.75 ppm formaldehyde in air averaged over an 8-hour work day," the report continues.

He questioned state officials' statements that continuing to smell the telltale black licorice odor of the crude MCHM after the water was deemed "safe" was an aesthetic issue.

"I can guarantee you that the citizens of this valley are at least in some instances breathing formaldehyde," he said.

In particular, he pointed to people taking showers. He said the chemicals involved become agitated under heat, and are therefore more noticeable during a hot shower. He said it's likely people breathed in the substance from steam that came as a result of the shower.

The ATSDR data says inhaling formaldehyde can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. High doses ingested by rats have caused stomach damage, according to the study.

Both the CDC study and a study from the World Health Organization say formaldehyde is a carcinogen, or something believed to have the ability to cause cancer.

"Further studies of groups who have been occupationally exposed to formaldehyde by inhalation have largely supported this position but provide more evidence that formaldehyde may possibly pose a carcinogenic risk of lung or sino-nasal cancer, and possibly lymphoid leukaemia, in occupationally exposed groups," the WHO study says.

Both studies point to long-term exposure in carcinogen sections.

There are still plenty of questions, Simonton said. He is still waiting to receive many of his test results, and emphasized he's still trying to learn more about all of the chemicals involved.

But the information he has makes him question the safety of the water.

"I can only tell you what I'm doing, and I'm not drinking the water," he said.

Lawmakers asked few questions after the presentation. Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, said the information caught them off guard.

"I think we're in a little bit of shock because of this," Unger said.

At no point have officials from the state or water company announced they are testing for anything other than crude MCHM.

Updated information on this developing story can be found at as it becomes available.

Contact Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or Follow him on Twitter at Dave_Boucher1.

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