School plumbing flushings to take extra precautions
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state's health officer advised employees flushing the plumbing at schools following the recent chemical leak to take extra safety precautions that were not included in guidelines for flushing homes.
The advice includes having access to "personal protective equipment" like gloves, leaving the room or opening windows and avoiding water vapor while flushing.
None of these precautions were mentioned in the residential flushing guidelines developed by West Virginia American Water Co. and approved by the state.
Roughly half of the people treated at hospitals who believed they were suffering from symptoms related to the spill reported those symptoms after homes and businesses were told they could flush.
Employees and students at several Kanawha County schools have either gone to the hospital or complained of symptoms they also felt were directly related to flushing procedures in schools.
The state discovered thousands of gallons of chemicals leaking into the Elk River on Jan. 9. Within hours of discovering the spill the chemical had overwhelmed the water company's treatment facility on the river.
Tap water for 300,000 West Virginians was tainted; its only approved uses were for flushing toilets and extinguishing fires.
Some recommendations for school flushing are outlined in a Jan. 13 "notice" from Dr. Letitia Tierney, state health officer and commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health. The Daily Mail received the notice and related information in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
"If you must flush lines by opening up faucets, make sure that there is good ventilation in the room by opening windows and doors," the notice states.
Procedures for homes were developed by West Virginia American Water and finalized by the state Department of Health and Human Resources, according to recent testimony by water company President Jeff McIntyre.
The plan, first distributed the same day Tierney's notice was created, explicitly tells people to open their faucets to flush their pipes. It makes no mention of needing proper ventilation or avoiding fumes and vapors that could result from running the hot water.
"Any lingering smell, which is expected, is not a health issue," states the residential advisory, in bold font.
McIntyre has repeatedly said the water company played no role in the creation of flushing procedures for schools.
Friday a DHHR spokesman, which oversees the Bureau for Public Health, said Tierney didn't think the extra precautions for school flushing were necessary, but wanted to reach a "comfortable consensus" with two unions as to safety measures.
"Although she felt the extra precautions outlined in the document were not necessary, she did not object to the extra precautions outlined by the WVSSPA and the ATF," said DHHR spokesman Scott Eubanks in an email.
"She was trying to assist the groups in reaching a comfortable consensus as they worked to reopen schools."
A spokeswoman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin didn't immediately respond to questions regarding who received Tierney's notice.
The notice is in response to a Jan. 13 safety precautions bulletin distributed by the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.
The bulletin advises specific safety precautions, including wearing goggles or waterproof rain gear.
"AFT-WV and WVSSPA collaborated with (national AFT President) Randi Weingarten and the research department at AFT to offer safety guidelines for the school employees who may have been involved in the flushing process and also for those returning to work," state AFT President Christine Campbell told the Daily Mail Sunday.
"We wanted to ensure proper precautions were taken when dealing with so many unknowns surrounding the chemical itself and the process of making our schools safe for the children and school employees."
Hallie Mason, Tomblin's director of public policy, sent an email about the bulletin the afternoon of Jan. 13 to Tierney and DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling. Mason asked for the bureau's guidance regarding the bulletin's recommendation on using the protective equipment.
In a follow up email, Mason asked Tierney to put the guidance on official letterhead because the unions' guidelines were already distributed.
"Therefore, a straightforward statement on your letterhead stating what is needed (of course without being oppositional) is what is needed," Mason wrote in the email.
Tierney's notice adopts many of the recommendations from the unions' bulletin. The only precautions Tierney specifically says are not necessary are the goggles and the rain gear. It says "personal protective equipment" like water proof or rubber gloves should be available to employees from the school district.
The notice and the bulletin state there's "probably no need" for extra precautions when flushing a "closed system" like a re-circulating boiler or hot water systems. If flushing "water lines" or systems like dishwashers or ice makers though, both state the employee should take steps to minimize contact with the water, vapor or steam coming from hot water faucets.
The residential flushing guidelines also outline procedures for how to flush dishwashers and ice makers. The guidelines don't mention a need to avoid contact with the water, vapor or steam that could result from the flushing process.
Several scientists, including one recently hired by the state, have said inhaling steam or vapor with the chemical could pose some sort of health risk.
Andrew Whelton, a professor at the University of Southern Alabama and a leader of the team hired by the state to conduct in-home testing of water systems, recommended opening windows and doors before flushing. Dr. Scott Simonton, a Marshall University professor, told a state legislative committee residents may have inhaled chemicals in the steam from hot showers.
As of the end of January more than 500 people were treated at local hospitals with symptoms they believed were related to the chemical leak. Since Jan. 14, the day after the first people were told they could start flushing their homes and businesses, 256 people went to emergency rooms and 13 were admitted, said Janet Briscoe, director of epidemiology and emergency preparedness for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
Several Kanawha County Schools closed weeks after the spill to conduct additional flushing after people complained of health issues or of smelling licorice in the water. A licorice odor is the telltale smell of MCHM, the main chemical that contaminated the water.
Kanawha County Schools returned to using tap water last week, after Tomblin lifted a state of emergency that had been in effect for more than 50 days.