CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — State officials and a water company strongly disputed a scientist's claim Wednesday that residents were likely breathing in traces of formaldehyde while showering after the chemical spill, saying the chemical that tainted the water supply only produces the carcinogen at extremely high temperatures.
The dispute between the scientist and the officials underscored the steady stream of sometimes conflicting information that weary West Virginians have had to digest over the past several weeks while seeking certainty that their water is safe.
The crude MCHM that spilled into the water supply on Jan. 9 ultimately can break down into formaldehyde, West Virginia Environmental Quality Board vice-chairman Scott Simonton told a state legislative panel Wednesday. Simonton, who is also an environmental scientist at Marshall University, said the formaldehyde showed up in three water samples at a downtown Charleston restaurant as part of testing funded by a law firm representing businesses that lost money during the spill.
State Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Tierney — the state's top health officer — called Simonton's presentation "totally unfounded."
She said Simonton isn't a part of the interagency team that has been testing water samples. Tierney said her agency is unaware of how Simonton's study was done, including sampling procedures, protocol and methodology.
"His opinion is personal but speaks in no official capacity," Tierney said.
Simonton, who holds a Ph.D. in engineering, was appointed by the governor to the board that hears appeals on state water permitting and enforcement decisions. He was first appointed for his first five-year term more than a decade ago by then-Gov. Bob Wise.
Tierney said experts who have been assisting the state said the only way for formaldehyde to come from MCHM is if it were combusted at 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
West Virginia American Water called Simonton's opinion "misleading and irresponsible."
University of Washington public health dean Dr. Howard Frumkin, an environmental health specialist, suggested that officials use caution when interpreting the results of the water tests that Simonton cited.
"There's lot of possibilities there," he said, including the chance that any formaldehyde showing up in tests isn't a result of the chemical spill.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the chemical can make people who breathe a lot of it feel sick, and it appears to increase cancer risks if inhaled repeatedly.
Initial testing at Vandalia Grille in Charleston showed traces of the chemical in the water -- twice at 32 parts per billion and once at 33 parts per billion, Simonton said. The testing took place Jan. 13, the first day some downtown Charleston businesses were able to flush their systems.