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W. Va. schools close due to odor, burning eyes after chemical spill

February 6, 2014 - Ben Klein
Just one day after a federal health official said that West Virginians can use tap water, one teacher fainted and students and staff at three schools in W. Va. were sent home after complaining of burning eyes and odor in their schools.

From Mackenzie Mays at the Charleston Gazette:

"Three more Kanawha County schools abruptly closed on Thursday because of complaints that the water had a black licorice odor -- the smell associated with the coal-cleaning chemical that leaked into the Elk River last month."

On Wednesday, Riverside High School and Midland Trail Elementary also dismissed students early because while they were flushing their water systems in response to complaints about the smell, one teacher fainted, and several students and employees complained of lightheadedness and burning eyes and noses. Those two schools remained closed today.

Around 6 a.m., Robins Elementary cook Nicole Carte said she turned the dishwasher on and ran hot water in the sinks, like she has been told to do each morning, and the black licorice smell was instantly detectable. Carte's eyes began burning, and fellow cook Brandy Holstein said she felt nauseated.

"We just want everything to go back to normal, whatever that is," Carte said."

Richard Denison, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund who has been following the Elk River chemical spill, said it's important to remember that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's 1-part-per-million "screening level" for Crude MCHM is based on ingesting the chemical in drinking water. That number may not fully account for inhalation of Crude MCHM fumes, which is the issue being raised at area schools, Denison said.

"There is no data directly on what levels are safe in the air," Denison said. "The notion that [the CDC number] gives you any information about safe levels in the air is just false."

Denison said that state and local officials should not try to downplay any symptoms reported by students or school employees, given the lack of air quality monitoring and toxicity data.

"We're 28 days after the spill, and this stuff is still being detected in the homes and schools, at least by the nose," Denison said. "It suggests this whole business about flushing isn't working."


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