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WVU researcher says water use precautions are necessary

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A West Virginia University researcher is saying state precautions are prudent in light of a declared state emergency following a chemical spill affecting water in southern West Virginia.

Residents in Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane counties are being advised to use tap water only to flush toilets.

The chemical, 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol, is used as a foaming agent to separate coal from clay particles in the coal-cleaning process.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, said the chemical is potentially most harmful in skin contact or inhalation.

"It will absorb through your skin," he said. "It will cause irritation to your skin or irritation to your lungs."

It's important to note that the smell of the chemical isn't harmful on its own -- the chemical itself must come into contact with the skin or lungs, or be ingested.  

It's difficult to know how harmful tap water is though, he said, because most studies on the chemical have used it in pure form or at very high concentration levels.

The biggest risk of irritation, he said, is probably in the shower, when the chemical can be inhaled in vapor form, irritating the lungs. The vapor is said to irritate the lungs at a concentration of 500 milligrams per liter.

Ziemkiewicz is only aware of one study that dealt with ingestion of the chemical, and it used mice as subjects, not humans. Still, using his own calculations, Ziemkiewicz guesses that one would have to drink thousands of gallons of the stuff to reach irritation levels.

"Most of the studies look like they have been done with a pure compound, not a diluted compound," he said.

"This is not something that's going to be present in such high concentrations that it's going to something that I would consider a real public health crisis," he said.

Janet Briscoe, director of epidemiology and emergency preparedness for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said "we have not had any confirmed linkage that there was any illness connected" to the chemical leak.

Charleston Area Medical Center spokesman Dale Witte said four people have been admitted to CAMC with symptoms that are potentially related to the chemical spill. He also said that a definite link has not yet been confirmed.

Witte said the people came in to the emergency room and were admitted for observation. He did not have specifics on their symptoms.


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