CHARLESTON - A federal health official said Wednesday that West Virginians can use tap water however they choose after last month's chemical spill contaminated it for days. Still, public skepticism remains over its safety and some local doctors are advising some of their patients not to ingest it.
The Jan. 9 spill of a coal-cleaning chemical at Freedom Industries in Charleston spurred a water-use ban for 300,000 people for up to 10 days. After officials cleared thousands to use water again, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials advised pregnant women to consider a different water source.
However, on Wednesday, the CDC reaffirmed its stance on the water's safety, even for pregnant women.
"You can drink it. You can bathe in it," said Dr. Tanja Popovic, acting director of the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. "You can use it how you like."
Popovic said the CDC's original suggestion meant only to empower pregnant women to make their own health decisions.
"They may not want to eat certain food," Popovic said. "They may not want to fly. It doesn't mean that flying isn't safe."
Still, many restaurants refuse to cook with it. And some local doctors are telling certain patients, like children under 3 and people with compromised immune systems, not to drink it, said Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for Kanawha and Putnam counties.
And Wednesday, two schools closed early after the licorice odor indicative of the spilled chemical wafted through several classrooms and a cafeteria. Some students started feeling light-headed, and had itchy eyes and noses. A teacher fainted and another student went to the hospital, said state schools Superintendent James Phares.
Trying to provide some clarity, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he is evaluating options to send teams into some people's homes to check their water. He previously said his team didn't plan to test in homes.
"We all have the same question - is my water safe?" Tomblin said at a news conference. "This question is justifiable and can't be ignored."
After the spill, state and federal agencies scrambled to identify how much of the material that leaked could be safely in the water supply.
Officials have based testing at the water treatment plant, fire hydrants, in schools and various other spots across the affected region.
House Speaker Tim Miley and Minority Leader Tim Armstead urged Tomblin to start representative sampling in select homes across the affected nine-county area.
The lawmakers suggested urging West Virginia American Water to pay for the tests. The state should actually conduct the testing, they said.
Governor spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin confirmed that Tomblin is evaluating in-home testing options.
Riverside High and Midland Trail Elementary in Kanawha County closed Wednesday morning because of a prevailing licorice smell resembling the chemical that spilled. Tests later showed no detection of the chemical. The schools canceled classes today, too.
Superintendent Phares said schools were flushing their pipes Wednesday because of a water main break earlier in the week and didn't finish before students arrived.
Students won't be back at those schools until the chemical is no longer detected, Phares said. The West Virginia National Guard was conducting tests Wednesday evening and today.
The chemical wasn't detected in previous testing.
The CDC's Popovic argued that the doctors' advice to not drink the water doesn't conflict with CDC recommendations.
"Because the general guidance is applicable to everybody, there are always individuals who may be a little bit different and they want to implement additional measures staying away from something," Popovic said.