West Virginians Report Illness From Water

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 Charleston Paramedics responded to a man unresponsive on the banks of the Elk River on January 10, 2014 in Charleston, West Virginia. Authorities thought it might be related to the chemical leak.
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In West Virginia, the ban on tap water following the Elk River chemical spill has been lifted incrementally since Monday.

Though the taps have started running and the cameras have begun to head home, the story is not over.

On Tuesday, environmental activist Erin Brokovich showed up in Charleston, where 300,000 people have been affected by the chemical spill.

“We've got to stop our laissez-faire attitude about safety last, money first because it's not working—it's not making any business sense to me," said Brokovich.

Safety is the key word there. Not much is known about MCMH—an estimated 7,500 gallons of the chemical, which is used to remove impurities from coal, leaked into the Elk River. Despite that uncertainty, the water has been deemed safe for many—safe to shower in, safe to cook with, and safe to drink.

Since officials began clearing the water for use, however, dozens are reporting side effects from chemical exposure.

Joining The Takeaway to explain what kind of symptoms West Virginia residents are seeing is Dr. Elizabeth Brown, a Charleston-based general practitioner who has been treating victims of the chemical spill.

"People are scared, people are nervous—we're not getting any information on the safety of the water, even after it's been deemed safe," says Dr. Brown. "There is no long term data on MCHM, there's not even any short term data on it. There's really nothing we can be certain about."

West Virginia American Water, the largest investor-owned water utility in the state, serves more than 580,000 people. The utility company provided affected residents with protocols for flushing their piping systems so they could receive water, a recommendation that most people followed.

"Soon after they used that water that was supposedly safe, they started to develop some concerning symptoms," says Dr. Brown. "The first ones that I saw Monday afternoon were in the form of skin rashes. I had a couple patients who flushed their systems and then waited about 45 minutes. One gentleman ran his hands under the water and sustained a pretty severe rash. He had swelling of his hands, some welts and even what appeared to be a chemical burn under his wedding band."

Dr. Brown says that another patient showered after flushing his system and sustained a head-to-toe rash the covered his scalp, face and back, which the doctor said the patient described as painful and itchy and provided a burning sensation.

"As people started to drink the water, we began to see sore throats, nose bleeds, some nausea and vomiting," says Dr. Brown. "Even people with breathing difficulties had some trouble after inhaling the steam or the vapors of the water."

How easy is it to link all of these symptoms to a specific containment? Find out by listening to the full interview.