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No WV health officials trained to respond to chemical leaks, CDC says

By Dave Boucher, Capitol Bureau Chief

None of West Virginia’s state public health officials were trained to respond to a chemical disaster at the time of the recent massive chemical leak and water contamination, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are not state epidemiologists assigned to respond to natural disasters either.

“Currently, there are no epidemiologists in positions that respond to acute chemical or radiological releases, or specifically tasked with natural disaster response,” the report states.

“There also are no programs to enhance occupational safety and health of responders.”

The report comes as an additional review of the state’s response to the chemical leak earlier this year, where thousands of gallons of MCHM and other chemicals leaked into the Elk River and contaminated drinking water for roughly 300,000 people. Although the state discovered the leak Jan. 9, federal investigators believe it’s likely as many as two tanks were leaking before that day.

The West Virginia Bureau for Public Health has some epidemiologists, public health officials who study patterns and causes of disease and injury to people, according to the U.S. Bureau for Labor statistics. The CDC determined none of those epidemiologists were specifically trained to deal with chemical or natural disasters.

Instead, epidemiologists who normally focus on infectious diseases led the epidemiological efforts for the state during the leak and contamination response, the report states.

Those epidemiologists didn’t get training in “assessment to chemical exposure” until late March of this year, months after they started leading the health response to the chemical leak. The state has 34 epidemiological positions, but five aren’t filled, the report states.

“DHHR may want to consider additional resources such as hiring an epidemiologist who would lead the response for environmental disasters and acute environmental incidents,” the report states.

The CDC also recommended more DHHR planning for natural disasters like calamitous winter weather or a derecho and man-made disasters like chemical spills or bridge collapses. West Virginia should team with other states to get the proper training and access to information necessary to better respond to similar disasters in the future, the report suggests.

The DHHR’s head of epidemiology said the state is considering the CDC’s recommendation, but state health officials believe the CDC’s report “confirms” the state is taking steps necessary to continue protecting citizens in the event of a disaster.

“Over the last six months, the Bureau for Public health has been exploring additional training opportunities that will further strengthen the response preparedness of our agency’s epidemiologists during times of disaster,” said Dr. Loretta Haddy, state epidemiologist.

Multiple state agencies and the water company were consistently criticized for their response to the leak. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said it was a personal decision whether families would believe their tap water was safe. Nearly a month after the leak, state public health officer Dr. Letitia Tierney compared a decision to drink tap water and jumping off a bridge with a parachute in arguing people have different definitions of “safe.”

The CDC has also faced criticism. A week after the leak, the head of the CDC said it would be a good idea for pregnant women not to drink water that contained any amount of the chemical, but supplied few details as to why the announcement was delayed.

The federal agency was also slow in releasing information about how it determined the “screening level” for how much chemically tainted water could be safely consumed. It eventually announced the 1 part per million screening level was a “short term” guide, only to be used for consumption over a 14-day period. The screening level also only considered exposure through consumption of tainted water, not touching such water with the skin or inhaling contaminated vapor.

Hundreds of people reported rashes, burning skin and other negative health effects after state and federal officials announced water was safe to use once people flushed their plumbing systems. Eventually, the CDC and state health department acknowledged the symptoms could be a direct result of chemically tainted water in homes before and after residents flushed their plumbing.

Since then Tomblin has said he wouldn’t change anything about the state’s response to the leak. A state “after action review” looking into its response to the leak has not yet been released.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymailwv.com. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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