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Medical monitoring needed in wake of chemical spill, Gupta says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- About a dozen people at a town hall meeting Wednesday night said they were afraid of contracting long-term health problems after the Jan. 9 Freedom Industries' chemical leak.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha Charleston Health Department, said the "Crude MCHM" that leaked into the Elk River has never been tested on humans. It's unclear how the chemical could affect people decades from now, he said. The only way to track these possible effects is for the federal government to create a medical monitoring program.

"We need a medical monitoring program," Gupta said. "We needed a medical monitoring program two weeks ago."

More than 100 people came to the Clay Center's Walker Theater for an invitation-only town hall to discuss the ongoing water crisis. The event was hosted and moderated by WCHS-TV and included a panel of experts to answer questions. The panel was made up of: Randy Huffman, cabinet secretary for the state Department of Environmental Protection; Mike Dorsey, chief of homeland security and emergency response for WVDEP; Erin Brockovich, a national environmental activist; Bob Bowcock, a member of Brockovich's investigative team; and Gupta.

Donna Wood, of Charleston, asked the panel what to do about frequent rashes on her body since the chemical spill tainted her water in South Hills. Gupta said Wood is one of many people he's seen with similar symptoms.

"I don't trust any doctor who says this is just the flu, a sunburn or something else," Gupta said. "We need to get people into rooms for examination and not just people who come to the ER. People who come to the ER are only the tip of the iceberg."

Gupta told the audience to use their own discretion when it comes to touching or drinking the tap water. Gupta only drinks tap water if it doesn't have the now-familiar licorice smell associated with the leak, he said.

Brockovich agreed with Gupta and said the people affected by the chemical spill should push state and federal officials to create programs to monitor long-term health effects.

"West Virginia could set an example for the rest of the country on how to respond to municipal emergencies," she said.

So far, the crisis has been mishandled at every step, Brockovich said. She criticized West Virginia American Water and state officials who gave conflicting information immediately following the spill.

Gupta agreed and said he was disappointed with the water company for routinely ignoring the public's questions and concerns. West Virginia American Water officials declined requests to attend Wednesday night's town hall, WCHS-TV producers said.

Nearing the end of the discussions, one man asked Huffman about what protocols are in place to test water coming out of residents' pipes and taps. Huffman said he is not familiar with any of those programs and the water company is conducting testing.

In response to a question, Huffman said he's not aware of any "full spectrum analysis" to determine all the chemicals in the spill. Another woman asked if the Federal Environmental Protection Agency could take full control of the State Department of Environmental Protection. Huffman said that would not be in the best interest of the state.  

Dissatisfied with Huffman's answers, state environmental activist Maria Gunnoe jumped on stage and stole his water bottle.

Gunnoe said after the town hall that she wanted to steal Huffman's water "like he robbed the people of West Virginia's water."  

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.

 


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