CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Trace amounts of formaldehyde found in Charleston's water supply are likely connected to the recent chemical spill, two scientists who tested the water told a panel of lawmakers Wednesday.
State officials argued there's no way that could happen, and said a certain amount of formaldehyde in the water is not dangerous. West Virginia American Water Co. spokeswoman Laura Jordan said the scientists' report was "misleading and irresponsible."
Jordan said the company's procedures are "carefully prescribed, outlined and certified," and would continue to work with government officials and other professionals to determine whether any public health threat exists.
In a statement Wednesday night, Dr. Letitia Tierney, state Bureau for Public Health commissioner, called the report presented Wednesday by Dr. Scott Simonton, a Marshall University professor and the vice chairman of the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board, "totally unfounded."
She and Dr. Elizabeth Scharman, director of the state Poison Center, said formaldehyde occurs frequently in nature and is common in many household products like cheeses and plastic bags.
Both acknowledged it is a carcinogen but pointed to standards showing trace amounts are acceptable.
"People shouldn't just take the statement, 'Oh, we found formaldehyde in the water,' and have that be a scary statement itself," Scharman said Wednesday evening.
"Frankly, the formaldehyde has me, personally, a little freaked out," he told lawmakers Wednesday.
Inhaling formaldehyde can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Simonton presented a report to a joint legislative water resources committee.
Officials believe at least 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM and PPH leaked from a faulty storage tank owned by Freedom Industries near the Elk River. An unknown amount seeped into the river and a West Virginia American Water Co. treatment plant Jan. 9, prompting a do-not-use advisory for 300,000 West Virginians.
"What we know scares us, and we know there's a lot more we don't know," Simonton told lawmakers Wednesday morning.
Chemicals can break down -- turn into other chemicals based on their composition -- after coming in contact with things like water, air, skin and sunlight.
Simonton said he and other experts think formaldehyde could result from that process.
Simonton and his team, with funding from law firm Thompson and Barney, started testing water samples shortly after the spill was announced.
Thompson and Barney is one of many firms involved in litigation against Freedom and others defendants.
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 Tuesday from samples taken at Vandalia Grille, a downtown Charleston restaurant.
The results for three different samples taken there on Jan. 13 show 32 or 33 parts per billion of formaldehyde. Simonton said results from several samples taken from other places are still being processed.
The water company allowed facilities in the same area as Vandalia, the first area "cleared," to start flushing pipes the same day.
"It scares me a lot, because it's a known human carcinogen, so any exposure, no matter how slight, is going to increase cancer risks" Simonson said after the meeting.
"Now, that increased risk can be terribly, terribly small. The problem is, we're seeing it in water, we don't know what the concentration is in air."
Tierney and Scharman questioned his testing methods and his decision to release results before discussing them with the state.
"Our experts are telling us that (crude MCHM) cannot create formaldehyde unless it's combusted at 500 degrees Fahrenheit," Tierney said.
Neither Tierney nor Scharman would name those experts. They also wouldn't explain how the 500-degree figure was determined. Neither was aware of any testing by the state for formaldehyde.