Even as the water slowly comes back on, people living near the Freedom Industrial chemical spill affecting Charleston, W.V. are very uneasy.
30-nine per cent of 300,000 West Virginia American Water residential customers affected by the spill had been cleared to use their taps on Tuesday after nearly a week without water.
Contact with the water tainted by 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, a solvent used to rinse coal, can cause cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhoea, rashes and reddened skin. A total of 231 people visited emergency rooms with symptoms, and 14 were admitted, officials told Reuters.
As we drove into Charleston and listened to radio reports from local residents, a DJ segued into the song “Stuck Like Glue,” and said, “No, that’s not supposed to be coming from your tap.”
Despite reassurances from the water company that some of the local tap water is safe, locals are concerned. We met Lisa at a gas station. She finally showered after four days, but refuses to let her kids under the water. “It’s scary,” she said. “You don’t know what’s in there. It’s not a fun feeling.”
At the register, a man said, “people are saying they have blue gunk coming from their faucets and a friend of mine went to the hospital for chemical burns.”
MCHM-tainted water is clear, but perhaps something blue was used while cleaning up the spill. No one we met had actually seen the blue gunk, though everyone had heard of it.
The shift nurse at the Emergency Room, Brandon, said people were coming in with complaints, but that there have been no chemical burns. “A lot of skin irritations, nausea, and dehydration,” he told us Tuesday evening, but that’s about it.
Restaurants are finally opening back up since being told to turn their water off last week. “We’re still using bottled water,” one pizza shop owner told us, though he declined to give his name. “Our ice still has that licorice smell, and the fountain soda … people been complaining about that too.”
At a local drug store one young employee told us his wife had given birth the morning of the water ban in the hospital. “It’s been a lot of baby wipes,” he said. “But it’s taking longer for her to heal, ya know, because there’s no way to clean with no water.”
We took his picture and his name, but within moments of talking to him the store manager called us. “If you use the photo or mention the employee’s name, he will be fired.”
They don’t call this area “Chemical Valley” for nothing. With local plants operated by DuPont & Co., Dow Chemical Co., and Bayer AG, as well as Freedom, chemicals play a major role in the regional economy. The related coal industry is even more important for West Virginia. For many people, that economic incentive is enough for them to look the other way in yet another environmental crisis.
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