There’s another reason for Charleston, West Virginia, residents to be afraid of their water: It might contain formaldehyde.
“I can guarantee you that citizens in this valley are, at least in some instances, breathing formaldehyde,’’ Marshall University Professor Scott Simonton told a committee of the West Virginia State Legislature. Simonton said that persons who showered or bathed in Charleston area water are breathing in formaldehyde. He also claimed to have detected the chemical in water in downtown Charleston.
Charleston’s water supplier, West Virginia America Water, and the state Board of Public Health, almost immediately denied Simonton’s claims. A press release for the utility called Simonton’s statement misleading and irresponsible.
Simonton is also the vice chairman of West Virginia’s Environmental Quality Board.
Freedom Industries nearly went out of business in 2009, and it is only in business today because it was “rescued” with stimulus money from the federal government, according to Bloomberg News. Thus, taxpayer money financed those responsible for the chemical spill. All total, $400,000 in stimulus money was spent in 2009 as the Army Corps of Engineers dredged silt buildup from the Elk River, which runs by the plant. That kept the company viable. Prior to that, barges were unable to get down the river.
Scientist says chemicals are in the Shower
Simonton says chemicals that entered Charleston’s water supply after a chemical spill at the Freedom Industries company are breaking down into formaldehyde. Formaldehyde has been labeled a human carcinogen or cancer causing chemical by the National Toxicology Program.
“This stuff is breaking down into formaldehyde in the shower or in the water system, and they’re inhaling it,’’ Simonton said in The Los Angeles Times. Formaldehyde is most toxic when people inhale it. He thinks that water vapors from showers and baths in Charleston now contain formaldehyde.
People in Charleston might be breathing in formaldehyde, but they probably are not being exposed to dangerous levels of the substance, said another scientist, Richard Denison, of the Environmental Defense Fund. Denison told The Times that there is no reliable scientific data about the effects of airborne formaldehyde on human beings.
The Danger from Formaldehyde
Formaldehyde is a dangerous substance that is toxic enough to be used as a disinfectant. Among other things, the chemical will kill most funguses and bacteria. Simonton’s theory is that one of the chemicals that leaked from Freedom Industries — 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol or MCHM — is breaking down into formaldehyde.
“It’s frightening, it’s really frightening,” Simonton said of the water in Charleston. He noted that his family is not using the water even though officials have declared it safe for everybody but pregnant women.
Hair salon workers and others who use formaldehyde are warned to limit their exposure to the substance by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). An OSHA fact sheet noted that formaldehyde can cause the following problems:
- Eye irritation and damage
- Bloody noses
- Rashes and other skin problems
- Lung damage leading to breathing problems.
Exposure to formaldehyde can lead to an increase risk of leukemia and lung cancer, studies by the National Cancer Institute concluded. It is not known if Charleston area residents have been exposed to enough of the substance to cause these problems.
The People Behind The Company
West Virginians might even be more worried about their water if they knew the history of Freedom Industries.
Company founder Carl Kennedy II was convicted of embezzling payroll tax money from his employees and was sent to federal prison in 2006, Bloomberg Businessweek reported. The magazine also reported that Kennedy was convicted for selling cocaine in 1987.
Freedom Industries was recently sold to a man named Cliff Forrest just 10 days before the spill. Bloomberg described Forrest as a coal baron who owns a company called Rosebud Mining. Freedom filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 17, in what observers believe is an attempt to avoid lawsuits. Interestingly enough, nobody knew who owned Freedom Industries until the bankruptcy papers were filed.
“These people who were running Freedom Industries weren’t the sort you’d put in charge of something like chemical storage that could affect the whole community,” Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said of Freedom’s management team. “Who are these guys, anyway?”