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Many times in chemical exposure cases, symptoms may not show up for months or even years....it may take the medical community some time to link up these health problems with exposure to the chemical.
CHARLESTON, WV, January 21, 2014 /24-7PressRelease/ -- On Thursday, January 9th, about 300,000 residents in southwest West Virginia were told not to use their tap water after a chemical spill leached into the Elk River. The chemical in the spill, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, (MCHM) is a greasy, organic solvent used as part of an industrial process to prepare mined coal before coking or burning. Unfortunately, because it is an industrial cleaner that is not used in consumer products, MCHM has not received a significant amount of safety review. So officials have not been able to predict the chemical's effect on the health of the local population in the counties of Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam and Roane, and including the state capital, Charleston. By the following Wednesday, the chemical was already showing up in testing samples taken from the Ohio River in Cincinnati, OH. The hazardous chemical was also expected to flow downstream via the Ohio River through Louisville, KY.
Residents are right to be concerned about the effects of exposure to the chemical. They have been advised by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to look out for symptoms such as severe eye irritation, trouble breathing or burning in the throat, skin irritation or vomiting. According to W. Winston Briggs, an Atlanta attorney who specializes in toxic and chemical exposure cases, it not yet clear whether residents are suffering or will suffer from injuries or health problems due to exposure to the MCHM that was negligently released into the water system. "Many times in chemical exposure cases, symptoms of the exposure may not show up or become evident for months or even years. Once symptoms do appear, it may take the medical community some time to link up these health problems with the person's exposure to the chemical. The chemical can enter bodies orally, dermally or through inhalation and cause horrible consequences down the road. It will take skilled doctors, toxicologists and experts to put these cases together and hold the appropriate persons accountable."
Scientists know that the chemical MCHM breaks down after several weeks in water, and somewhat longer in soil and river sediment. But there is no telling exactly how long that will take. As the level of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol drops to 1 part per million across the region, authorities have been able to begin lifting the water ban.
Because businesses throughout the state, including its capital, were shut down by the emergency, lawsuits have already begun to be filed. Right now there are close to 20 suits against chemical company Freedom Industries and other corporations. The others targeted for lawsuits include the West Virginia unit of American Water Works, the nation's largest publicly traded water utility. The intake for water for the entire region is located only a few miles downriver of the chemical storage leak. And the manufacturer of MCHM, Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical Company, is another possible target. Eastman appears to have provided minimal oversight or safety studies on the chemical, and no human health studies at all.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs estimate that the disaster will cost their region close to half a billion dollars in wages, lost revenue and other damages. And state and federal agencies continue their research to determine what was broken down in the safety process that allowed this spill to occur. The site is under investigation by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents.
But even larger questions remain after this spill. For one, the extent of the leakage has not been determined. On January 9, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection inspectors arrived at Freedom Industries after getting complaints of chemical odors in the area. At that point, the storage tank had already clearly been leaking MCHM for some time, and there was evidence of a makeshift attempt to stop the leakage. Freedom Industries President Gary Southern admitted to having no idea how much of the chemical actually escaped from the tank.
Also, nobody knows how long it will take for West Virginia's water system to fully recover. Although some areas have been given the all clear to resume using their water, the reality is there is no documentation, only guesswork, on a safe level of MCHM in drinking water. And the chemical has already moved from the Elk River down into the Kanawha and Ohio rivers. No one knows yet how MCHM will impact the wildlife in and around these rivers.
Another issue is that there was apparently no oversight of chemical plants in West Virginia and no emergency plan in case of a chemical spill. Residents in the area were unaware of the hazardous chemicals stored near them, and West Virginia has only an antiquated, paper-bound process of tracking this information. And it is unlikely that Freedom Industries is the only facility in the state storing this chemical.
Finally, there is no idea about long term damage and threat to health from MCHM. This has led West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller to send a letter to the CDC and EPA requesting them to "work together to study long-term public health risks associated with a MCHM spill of this magnitude. Such a study will not only help the people of West Virginia but also inform any future incidents involving this compound. " As a result of the unknown latency period between crude MCHM exposure and illness, residents near and along the Ohio River in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois are encouraged to remain sensitive to any changes in their health that may have been triggered or caused by an exposure to MCHM. And those health risks may not only pose a threat to victims of this spill, but also to West Virginia residents who work in the coal industry using MCHM on a regular basis.
The law firm of W. Winston Briggs has handled multiple cases involving injuries from chemical spills throughout the US, helping clients obtain just compensation for their injuries and death claims. Primary areas of expertise are catastrophic personal injury, wrongful death, chemical exposure injuries, Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome (RADS) injuries and other lung injuries. The W. Winston Briggs Law Firm is based in Atlanta, GA, and legally represents clients throughout the United States.
W. Winston Briggs Law Firm
1005C Howell Mill Road
Atlanta, GA 30318
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