West Virginia health officials said Saturday that several people have been admitted to hospitals for chemical-related symptoms following a solvent leak into the area’s water supply that has left more than 300,000 residents unable to use tap water.
Seventy-three people have gone to area emergency rooms since the spill late Thursday and four have been admitted with symptoms such as skin irritation and nausea, Secretary Karen Bowling of the Department of Health and Human Resources said at a news conference in Charleston.
West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre said it is expected to take several days before uncontaminated water is flowing again.
An emergency order issued by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin advised residents not to use tap water for drinking, bathing, brushing teeth or washing dishes or clothes. Boiling the water will not make it safe, authorities said.
McIntyre said experts are continuing to test the water.
“We need to look at a body of results before we can make any decision on water quality,” he said.
Mike Dorsey, of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said about 7,500 gallons of methylcyclohexene methanol escaped from a Freedom Industries chemical plant in Charleston and seeped into the Elk River upstream from a water treatment plant.
That amount was a jump from earlier estimates that about 2,000 to 5,000 gallons of the chemical had leaked into the river.
Dorsey said state officials believe the chemical tank is no longer leaking. Waterways downstream, including the Kanawha and Ohio rivers, will not be affected because the solvent will have been diluted, he said.
A state regulatory agency ordered Freedom Industries, to remove all remaining chemicals from its plant site. The company president, Gary Southern, has apologized for the spill, calling it "unfortunate, unanticipated."
Health department officials, meanwhile, are inspecting facilities' plans to provide impacted residents clean water for drinking, cooking and other activities.
They will “work around the clock, 24-7 ... to try to open ... as many businesses as possible in the next couple of days,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston and Putnam County boards of health, said at the conference.
Gupta said that while "a handful of people have been admitted" to local hospitals, the health effects "have come down from where they were Thursday and Friday."
Federal agencies, such as Federal Emergency Management Agency, have been providing bottled water and other supplies for residents.
By Saturday morning, FEMA said it had delivered about 50 truckloads of water, or 1 million liters, to West Virginia.
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