UPDATE 1/29/14 @ 11:25 p.m.>
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- To say the past three weeks have been tough for business owner Mike Summerlin could be the biggest understatement of the year.
"I think that's the big frustration with everything is, we want to know what's in our water and want to know that it's safe," said Summerlin, owner of Vandalia Grille in Charleston.
Wednesday came with another hit. Dr. Scott Simonton said he found formaldehyde, an embalming agent and known carcinogen, in a water sample taken from the restaurant.
Simonton said it is a byproduct of MCHM, the main chemical that spilled.
Simonton is one of many scientists working as an expert witness for the law firm Thompson Barney, who gathered several samples when flushing was taking place two weeks ago.
"What's the 4-MCHM going to do in the environment? Is it going to bio-degrade? Is it going to persist? Is it going to turn into something dangerous?" asked firm partner Kevin Thompson.
State leaders are calling the claims "unfounded" in part because of the way in which the formaldehyde by-product is created.
"The only way formaldehyde can be created by that is if it were heated by 500 degrees Fahrenheit," said State Health Officer Dr. Letitia Tierney.
That's a temperature much higher than any home water heater could reach.
Instead, they argue formaldehyde, like other compounds, is everywhere.
"Unfortunately, in the world we live in, we are exposed to chemicals on a daily basis whether we like it or not," said Dr. Elizabeth Scharman, director of the West Virginia Poison Center.
While the sample from Vandalia Grille is the only one out of hundreds of samples to make a positive reading, Thompson Barney insists the only way to find out what else is in the water is to dive in deeper.
"We need to do more research, more testing. We need to figure out if there are more chemicals we need to be looking for," Thompson said.
Thompson Barney found formaldehyde levels around 32 parts per billion at Vandalia Grille. The Centers for Disease Control lists 10 parts per billion as a low risk and 100 parts per billion as a medium risk.
According to a release from the state DHHR, Scott Simonton’s presentation to the West Virginia Joint Legislative Committee Wednesday is totally unfounded and does not speak to the health and safety of West Virginians.
The release states subject matter experts who have been assisting West Virginia through this entire emergency response state the only way possible for formaldehyde to come from MCHM is if it were combusted at 500 degrees F.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states formaldehyde is the most frequent aldehyde found in nature and is naturally measurable in air and water. Formaldehyde is created through the normal breakdown cycle of plants and animals. Formaldehyde dissolves easily in water and does not last a long time in water.
Additionally, formaldehyde is naturally produced in very small amounts in the body as a part of our normal, everyday metabolism and causes no harm. It can also be found in the air that we breathe at home and at work, in the food we eat, and in some products that we put on our skin.
Formaldehyde is found in many products used every day around the house such as antiseptics, medicines, cosmetics, dish-washing liquids, fabric softeners, shoe-care agents, carpet cleaners, glues and adhesives, lacquers, paper, plastics, and some types of wood products.
The release states the DHHR is unaware of the specifics of how this study was conducted, including sampling procedures, protocol and methodology, and would also be interested in the possibility of some other issue affecting the testing of water at the establishment indicated.
The DHHR says Simonton has not been part of the integral team of water testing officials from numerous state, local and private agencies working non-stop since Jan. 9. They say his opinion is personal but speaks in no official capacity.
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Environmental Quality Board official Scott Simonton says the crude MCHM that spilled into the water supply ultimately can break down into formaldehyde.
He says the breakdown can happen in the shower and that formaldehyde is most toxic when inhaled.
He calls respiratory cancer the biggest risk with breathing in the chemical. He made the remarks to a state legislative panel Wednesday.
Initial testing at Vandalia Grille in Charleston showed traces of the chemical.
Other testing showed no traces of formaldehyde, but samples are still being processed.
Freedom Industries' Jan. 9 spill in Charleston spurred a water-use ban for 300,000 West Virginians for days, but officials have lifted it.