News Feature | May 29, 2014

Residents Ignored Water Ban After Charleston Chemical Spill

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


An official ban did not stop Charleston-area residents from running their faucets after Freedom Industries spilled a dangerous chemical into the Elk River this year, endangering the drinking water of 300,000 people. 

"Nearly one-fourth of Kanawha County residents responding to a health survey say they used their tap water, despite a ban, after a January chemical spill," the Associated Press reported, citing a study recently released by the Kanawha-Charleston health department. 

The research report surveyed 499 adults by telephone during April. The results indicated that 90 percent of respondents are currently using their tap water. However, "only about a third of those surveyed by local public health officials say they are drinking that water," according to the Charleston Gazette

The January 9 chemical spill contaminated water in nine counties, leaving the tap water with a licorice smell. The tap water ban lasted up to ten days in some areas, although residents were allowed to douse fires, if they needed to, and use the toilet.

The study also checked for illnesses that may have resulted from drinking contaminated tap water. Respondents noted rashes and skin irritations, according to the AP. 

Many people suffered adverse health effects after the spill. "About one-third of respondents indicated a member of their household had a spill-related illness," the AP said, citing the results. 

For the most part, people did not seek care. "More than 70 percent of those who reported some illness or symptoms did not seek medical attention, the survey found. And if they did seek medical help, only 28 percent of residents went to a hospital emergency room," the Gazette reported. 

Rahul Gupta, the health department’s director, emphasized the gravity of the results. 

“It’s very important that we don’t underplay the seriousness of this,” he said in the Gazette report. 

Research indicates that the spill may have made people more inclined to favor government regulation.  

"Harvard researchers also found that 7 out of 10 West Virginians in areas impacted by the leak said they believed there was too little government regulation on the environment. Outside of the leak area, about half said there was too little regulation," the Gazette reported, citing Gupta. 

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Image credit: "A few workers and a backhoe are all that's seen at Freedom Industries mid-day.," iwasaround © 2014, used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license:

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