West Virginia American Water lifts 'do not drink' order for last water customers
Ralph Ellis, CNN
12:13 PM, Jan 19, 2014
(CNN) -- West Virginia American Water lifted the "do not drink" order for all water customers Saturday, but pregnant women were advised they should continue drinking bottled water for the time being.
After discovering chemicals had leaked into the water system January 9, the company started testing and had been giving customers in nine counties the go-ahead to drink water on a zone-by-zone basis. On Saturday, company spokeswoman Laura Jordan said the advisory had been lifted for all customers.
But many people are unconvinced the water is safe.
"If they're saying that they don't want pregnant ladies to drink the water, hey, I'm not going to drink it," Larence Armstrong of Nitro told CNN affiliate WSAZ. Armstrong said he and his wife, Cindy, will keep drinking bottled water and showering with a garden sprayer until they're sure the water is safe.
About 300,000 people had been advised to not drink or bathe with the water after the chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) was detected in water supplies.
Authorities said about 7,000 gallons of the chemical used to clean coal leaked out of a storage tank at a business and seeped into the Elk River near an intake for a West Virginia American Water treatment plant.
Dr. Letitia Tierney, state commissioner for the Bureau for Public Health, said in a conference call on that Saturday that pregnant women were urged to keep drinking bottled water "out of an abundance of caution."
"Doctors routinely advise pregnant women to avoid consuming a number of things -- including caffeine, alcohol, raw or undercooked meat, unpasteurized dairy products, luncheon meats and hot dogs," she said. "Fetal cells are continuing to develop, which is why pregnant women have been encouraged to continue drinking bottled water until there are no longer detectable levels of MCHM in the water distribution system."
She said water distribution sites will operate into the coming week.
Tierney said the state will keep testing until the system tests at 1/100 parts per million, a level well below the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended threshold for public health.
She said consumers may notice a licorice smell for a while but the water is safe, she said.
Armstrong told WSAZ his water smelled that way, even though the pipes had been flushed twice. When he flushed the first time he saw sediment in his bathtub.
"I took my thumb and went across the bottom of the tub," Armstrong said. "You could tell there was a streak where my thumb erased the sediment in there. [It was] a little tainted color, like a light beige or something like that."
Tierney said residents had complained of skin redness after showering with "safe" water. She said the problem may be caused by sediment in hot water tanks and pipes that was stirred up by flushing. She said people should see their doctors but that the problem is topical and easily treated with over-the-counter products.
"They won't last," she said of the red spots. "Once things settle down, these symptoms will go away."
Freedom Industries, the company that owns the property from which the leak originated, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Friday, said Matt Hayes, clerk for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.
CNN's AnnClaire Stapleton contributed to this report.