Study: Public health adversely affected when federal officials overlooked inhalation risk during West Virginia chemical spill

January 5, 2015  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – West Virginians suffered adverse health effects inside their homes after following plumbing-system flushing directions in response to a chemical spill last January, and these recommendations failed to consider the dangers of chemical vapor exposure, according to a new study.

Chemical storage tanks operated by Freedom Industries Inc. leaked more than 10,000 gallons of an industrial solvent into West Virginia's Elk River on Jan. 9, 2014. More than 300,000 people near the state capital Charleston were directed not to use the licorice-smelling tap water except for flushing toilets due to its unknown health impacts. The tap water was contaminated with two industrial products referred to as crude MCHM and stripped PPH that contained several chemicals with little known toxicity, said Andrew Whelton, an assistant professor in Purdue University's Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering and Lyles School of Civil Engineering.

 Based on the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) health-based drinking water screening level, water company officials recommended that residents flush contaminated water from their plumbing systems. Contaminated drinking water was discharged into storm drains, septic tanks and the sanitary sewer system.

"The CDC's health-based drinking water limit for the main compound of interest, 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM), did not consider inhalation exposures, only ingestion," Whelton said. "It was clear that volatile chemicals were present in the drinking water because it smelled like licorice. That was a clear sign inhalation was a plausible chemical exposure route. The public health consequences associated with flushing contaminated water into poorly ventilated rooms such as bathrooms were overlooked, and people became ill because of it."

The new report includes an examination of the research team's in-home survey, drinking water testing results, medical monitoring data, a detailed study of the events leading up to and following the spill, and recommendations for drinking-water providers, states, and the federal government.

Findings were detailed in a research paper published in December in the American Chemical Society's journal Environmental Science & Technology. Whelton led the research, which compared health impacts across several studies including those by the CDC and the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department (KCHD). At the time of the spill, he was on the faculty at the University of South Alabama. Eight days after the spill Whelton's volunteer student and faculty team from the University of South Alabama was in West Virginia and began conducting research.

The study describes medical data from the records of 224 patients examined by 10 physicians, a polling of residents in 16 homes and drinking water testing in 10 homes. The results were compared to the CDC’s review of medical records for 356 patients admitted to 10 hospitals, as well as follow-up surveys by the CDC and West Virginia. The most common adverse health effects found by the university researchers included rashes and skin irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sore throat and respiratory symptoms.

Whelton's university team found that 4-MCHM, the main ingredient of the spilled industrial liquid, was present in most of the homes they visited at a maximum concentration of 420 parts per billion, which is below the CDC’s health-based drinking water limit. Licorice drinking-water odors were detected by the researchers after flushing plumbing systems, which indicated that volatile chemicals were still present. Because of their findings, the researchers teamed up with Ohio State University student Krista Bryson who created and released an educational YouTube video to help residents protect themselves while flushing.

Another major oversight, Whelton said, is that no agency conducted in-home testing immediately after the accident. In late January, Whelton was called in by West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, and he as well as colleague Jeffrey Rosen of Corona Environmental Consulting set up and led the independent scientific investigation group called the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project (WVTAP). The WVTAP researchers conducted the first government-supported in-home testing one month after the spill, a follow-up to the initial work by Whelton's team.

The new study reviewed public health data and found two distinct symptom peaks; the first associated with the Jan. 9 incident and the second shortly after the flushing activities were authorized for buildings. Because of the adverse health impacts that were experienced by the population – experience the researchers gained first-hand while flushing contaminated plumbing systems – and additional laboratory testing, they concluded that the federal screening level of 1,000 parts per billion was inadequate. The researchers also concluded that the lack of a real-time population health surveillance system prevented responders from detecting and intervening in cases where flushing caused illnesses.

The findings also suggest similar drinking-water supply threats are posed by other above-ground chemical tanks, as well as buried hazardous material pipelines, and chemicals transported on railways, roadways, and waterways, Whelton said.

"There are hundreds of thousands of chemical storage tanks around the United States and many border or are upstream of major drinking water supplies," he said. "West Virginia alone has now identified approximately 50,000 tanks and about 4,000 are near water supplies. Many of these tanks contain chemicals that pose clear and present dangers to drinking water safety and human health. State and federal leaders must take action to help water suppliers better understand the threats they face and prevent chemical threats from being permitted near water supplies."

 Also needed, he said, are tools that responders can use to select plumbing system cleaning methods that do not harm the people they are trying to protect.

"Their development is going to require funding," Whelton said. "Today, water companies, state and federal officials simply do not have the necessary tools to respond to drinking water disasters."

The work was unfunded initially but later supported with a grant from the National Science Foundation. 

Writer: Emil Venere, 765-494-4709,

Source: Andrew J. Whelton, 540-230-6069,


Residential Tap Water Contamination Following the Freedom Industries Chemical Spill: Perceptions, Water Quality, and Health Impacts

Andrew J. WheltonΦ*, LaKia McMillan†, Matt Connell†, Keven M. Kelley†, Jeff P. Gill†, Kevin D. White†, Rahul Gupta‡, Rajarshi DeyΔ, Caroline Novy†

Φ Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering and Lyles School of Civil Engineering, Purdue University

‡ Kanawha Charleston Health Department, Charleston, WV

† Department of Civil Engineering, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL

Δ Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of South Alabama

*Corresponding author: Assistant Professor, Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering and Lyles School of Civil Engineering, Purdue University, 550 Stadium Mall Drive, West Lafayette, IN USA 47907-2051; T: (765) 494-2166; F: (765) 494-0395; E: ; 

During January 2014, an industrial solvent contaminated West Virginia's Elk River and 15% of the state population's tap water. A rapid in-home survey and water testing was conducted two weeks following the spill to understand resident perceptions, tap water chemical levels, and premise plumbing flushing effectiveness. Water odors were detected in all 10 homes sampled before and after premise plumbing flushing. Survey and medical data indicated flushing caused adverse health impacts. Bench-scale experiments and physiochemical property predictions showed flushing promoted chemical volatilization, and contaminants did not appreciably sorb into crosslinked polyethylene (PEX) pipe. Flushing reduced tap water 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (4-MCHM) concentrations within some but not all homes. 4-MCHM was detected at unflushed (<10 to 420 μg/L) and flushed plumbing systems (<10 to 96 μg/L) and sometimes concentrations differed among faucets within each home. All waters contained less 4-MCHM than the 1,000 μg/L Centers for Disease Control drinking water limit but one home exceeded the 120 μg/L drinking water limit established by independent toxicologists. Nearly all households refused to resume water use activities after flushing because of water safety concerns. Science-based flushing protocols should be developed to expedite recovery, minimize health impacts, and reduce concentrations in homes when future events occur.

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