Feds Point to Key Weak Point in West Virginia's Health Disaster Response

During the Elk River spill in West Virginia, water was trucked into the Charleston area. During the Elk River spill in West Virginia, water was trucked into the Charleston area. AP Photo/Alex Sanz

Eight months after West Virginia’s Elk River chemical spill, a federal agency has recommended the state set up a new program to assess community-wide chemical exposure, which it currently does not have. The report said that at the time of January’s spill, state public health officials weren’t trained to respond to such a disaster, which prompted a major water crisis in and around the state capital.

A memo from the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to West Virginia’s chief public health official said the state lacks a program for a response to chemical or radiological incidents or other emergency environmental issues.

The memo, posted by Charleston’s Daily Mail and Gazette, said disaster epidemiology is a relatively new field that seeks to produce actionable information for decision makers and planners following natural and man-made disasters.

“An epidemiologist working in this area would be the ideal leader for epidemiological response to environmental disasters,” it said. “This person could use their experience and contacts to rapidly coordinate a response, drawing on epidemiologists from other parts of the agency that have needed skill sets.”

West Virginia, according to the memo, can experience a wide range of disasters from an infectious disease pandemic to winter storms with widespread power outages, tornadoes, derechos, flooding, wildfires and man-made disasters such as chemical spills.

“Planning for different types of responses includes: identifying which group will be the lead, what will be needed for the response, and which other groups can provide expertise to augment the resources of the lead group,” the memo said, adding that “[m]aintaining a list of epidemiologists with specific skills and disaster epidemiology experience” would be helpful in an emergency-response situation when it’s important to identify key personnel assets in a timely fashion.

The ATSDR, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services public health agency based at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also recommended that West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources train epidemiologists specifically in disaster epidemiology.

The memo also recounted the events of early January 2014, when approximately 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) spilled into the Elk River 1.5 miles upstream from the Kanawha County municipal water intake near the state capital of Charleston. The chemical spill contaminated the water supply of approximately 300,000 local residents, the memo noted. A state of emergency was declared.

Following the spill, it said, patients began reporting to emergency departments and the state’s poison center received calls about symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, rash and headache. Furthermore, it said, on Jan. 21 it was disclosed that MCHM was not the only contaminant in the water supply.

The state’s Bureau of Public Health asked the ATSDR to assist with a rapid investigation of the health effects associated with MCHM exposure and assess the health needs of the impacted local population. Part of that investigation included an assessment of the bureau’s capacity for disaster epidemiology, the findings of which were issued in the memo report Monday.

In a statement released Tuesday, the state’s Bureau for Public Health said:

Over the last six months, the Bureau for Public health has been exploring additional training opportunities that will further strengthen the response preparedness of our agency’s epidemiologists during times of disaster. Additionally, we have been working with the WVU School of Public Health to create internships opportunities to help further recruit epidemiologists. The Bureau for Public Health has professional and capable epidemiologists that step in during disaster situations to help protect the safety and well-being of West Virginians.

The statement did not say if the department plans to create a program such as the one recommended by the federal agency.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting recently reported that federal, state and local officials are planning additional health studies on the Elk River spill. The state has also enacted legislation designed to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks.

David DeWitt is a journalist based in Athens, Ohio, and is a senior writer for The Athens News. He previously worked at National Journal’s Hotline and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com.

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