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Showering in Formaldehyde? Fresh Fears in West Virginia

Scientist says there's 'a lot more we don't know' about the safety of West Virginia water

- Lauren McCauley, staff writer

(Photo: Shenghung Lin/ cc via Flickr)"What we know scares us, and we know there's a lot more we don't know," a West Virginia environmental scientist said Wednesday after revealing he had found formaldehyde in water samples taken after officials had declared the water safe for drinking.

Scott Simonton, a Marshall University environmental scientist and member of the state Environmental Quality Board, told a joint legislative committee on water resources that he found traces of formaldehyde in water samples taken from a restaurant in downtown Charleston, the Charleston Gazette reported.

"I can guarantee that citizens in this valley are, at least in some instances, breathing formaldehyde. They're taking a hot shower. This stuff is breaking down into formaldehyde in the shower or in the water system, and they're inhaling it." —Scott Simonton, EQB

Though he did not say exactly when he took the sample or how much was found, Simonton's statement comes weeks after local officials declared the water safe to drink following the spill of over 10,000 gallons of coal processing chemicals MCHM and PPH into regional water source, the Elk River.

Crude MCHM has methanol as one of its main components and methanol breaks down into formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, Simonton explained.

"We know that (crude MCHM) turns into other things, and these other things are bad," Simonton told reporters Wednesday. "And we haven't been looking for those other things. So we can't say the water is safe yet. We just absolutely cannot."

"I can guarantee that citizens in this valley are, at least in some instances, breathing formaldehyde," he added. "They're taking a hot shower. This stuff is breaking down into formaldehyde in the shower or in the water system, and they're inhaling it."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, brief exposure to formaldehyde can elicit symptoms such as eye irritation and a sharp burning sensation of the nose and throat which may be associated with sneezing, difficulty in taking a deep breath, and coughing. Longer exposure to the chemical at 50 to 100 parts per million might cause serious injury to the lower respiratory passages.

In response to Simonton's warning, University of Washington public health dean and environmental health specialist Dr. Howard Frumkin told the Associated Press that officials should "use caution" when interpreting the results of the water tests because such chemicals may have been present in the region's waters even before the spill.

"There's a lot of possibilities there," he said.

Frumkin's comments allude to the fact that, in a region that is now known as much for its lax regulatory oversight as it is for its coal mines and mountaintop removal, such water contamination may have previously existed.

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