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Lawmaker possibly sickened by contaminated water

CHARLESTON, WV -- A state lawmaker said she was hospitalized and nearly lost sight in one eye after she bathed in water that had been deemed safe at a Charleston hotel.

Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson, spent parts of five days hospitalized with an infection above her right eye. She said doctors told her it was "periorbital cellulitis brought on by a severe staph infection."

"Honestly it looked like someone had punched me in the face," she said Monday, moments after a House floor speech about the ordeal.

At least 10,000 gallons of chemicals leaked Jan. 9 from a storage tank owned by Freedom Industries along the Elk River. An unknown amount seeped through an old concrete wall and into the river, contaminating the West Virginia American Water Co. treatment plant's intake.

By the end of the day about 300,000 West Virginians were told not to use their tap water.

Lawrence said her doctors didn't definitively link her infection with the chemical spill, but that they repeatedly asked about contact with any contaminated water.

"They have no idea, and they can't pinpoint it. They ran every test imaginable, they did blood culture after blood culture to see what would show up in Petri dish," Lawrence said.

Lawrence was in Charleston when the spill happened, a Thursday. She left town after, and returned the following Tuesday ahead of the Legislature reconvening that evening.

She took a shower that evening at a hotel that had already completed the "flushing" procedure recommended by state officials and the water company. She declined to name the hotel and said she doesn't blame it for what happened.

"There was some sediment and everything else in the sink. I should have known better," she said.

After the shower her eyes began to hurt. The next morning the skin around her right eye was red and swollen.

By that evening there was a protrusion above the eye, in addition to severe swelling. The next morning, Thursday, she went to the emergency room at St. Francis Hospital.

During the course of the next few days she received several doses of antibiotics and went to an ophthalmologist, who made an incision in her eye to relieve pressure. She still wasn't feeling any better by the start of the following week, and was admitted to St. Francis.

She said the hospital didn't believe it had the capacity to treat her staph infection, and recommended she go to Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown. She was admitted there Monday evening.

"On Tuesday my vision became blurry, and that's when I did start panicking a little bit," Lawrence said. "But after about 48 hours of antibiotics, I was able to be released."

She'd received about 15 bags of antibiotics intravenously by the time she was released Thursday, she said.

Lawrence said she understands she was one of many potentially sickened by the leak.  

As of Friday, 544 people had been treated and released at 10 different hospitals since the spill, said Allison Adler, state Department of Health and Human Resources spokeswoman. Twenty-six people were admitted and released from hospitals, she said.

State and local health officials say those numbers reflect people who self-reported symptoms they believed were related to the leak.

DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling and Kanawha-Charleston Health Department Executive Director Rahul Gupta have both repeatedly said they cannot definitively tie the leak to any of those ailments.

But Gupta said again Monday the chemical must be considered a potential contributor.

Without having any knowledge of Lawrence's case, he said in general it is possible water contamination could lead to a staph infection.

Patients who believe they were affected by contaminated water commonly report skin rashes and eye irritation, Gupta said. A natural response to a skin rash is itching and scratching.

"That is the nature of what happens. When you continue to itch your skin for whatever reason . . . there's always a risk for introducing bacteria to it," he said.

People can respond differently to contaminants and Gupta said people continue to show him pictures of ailments they are confident came from foul water.

"We feel it is appropriate to take these symptoms in that context," he said. "At this time we are unable to exclude the chemical."

The DHHR and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moved into a "post crisis review" this week, Adler said. That means they are no longer asking hospitals about the number of people reporting symptoms potentially related to the leak.

Instead, state and local health officials are conducting "surveillance" of hospitals. They'll review cases at each one to "focus on trying to connect" the leak and any reported ailments, Adler said.

"It could take anywhere from a month or more, beginning this week. It could go on for several months," Adler said.

For now, Lawrence said her eye feels much better. She's a little nauseous from the medications, but thankful she's on the mend.

She said the experience would have an effect on how she views legislation related to the spill.

She said during her time in the hospital she corresponded frequently with Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, who is sponsoring a bill that would create new regulations for aboveground storage tanks and more emergency preparedness measures.

Lawrence said she told the story of her time in the hospital on the House floor in the hope it might influence proactive measures from her fellow delegates.

"Unless there's a personal story or connection that we feel, we oftentimes discount things, I think, a little bit around here, and we tend to react," Lawrence said.

Unger's bill remained largely unchanged following the amendment stage Monday on the Senate floor. The Senate could send the bill to the House by today.


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