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Published: Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Page: 6A

Government officials, public health agencies and drinking water utilities need to develop better procedures for "flushing" contaminants out of home plumbing systems following incidents like the January 2014 chemical leak on the Elk River, according to a new scientific paper published this week.

No "science-based approach for recovering from such incidents is currently available, according to the study, co-authored by Purdue University researcher Andrew Whelton, who investigated the impacts of the Freedom Industries leak as part of a team appointed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Scientists aren't sure what sort of "flushing works best in different situations for varying contaminants or for different home-plumbing materials or configurations.

"There is much opportunity in this field for future advancement, Whelton and his co-authors wrote. "Further development of an evidence-based methodology for premise plumbing decontamination is very much needed.

"In light of recent large-scale drinking water contamination incidents as well as economic, social, and public health impacts they caused, additional research on premise plumbing decontamination is very much needed, the study said.

The new paper was posted online Monday by the journal Environmental Science: Water Research and Technology, which is published by the United Kingdom's Royal Society of Chemistry. Co-authors were Purdue graduate student Karen Casteloes and Randi Brazeau, a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Research for the paper was partly funded by the National Science Foundation and grew out of Whelton's work when, while at the University of South Alabama, he traveled to West Virginia in the days after the Freedom leak and later was picked by Tomblin to lead the West Virginia Testing Assessment Project, formed by the governor in response to growing public concerns during the regional water crisis.

The study examined more than three dozen incidents over the last 40 years in the U.S., Canada, Israel and Italy that resulted in contaminated drinking water supplies, to determine what methods were used for cleaning out home plumbing systems and what scientific basis there was for those methods.

Parts of the study focused on the West Virginia leak and on recent incidents in Washington, D.C., and Glendive, Montana. In those situations, researchers found differing approaches to flushing - such as whether to flush hot or cold water, how long to run home water systems, and whether to ventilate homes during the process -and said it "remains unclear what rationale was used to develop these three disparate approaches.

"There is, however, wide disparity between procedures, and evidence shows that poorly designed flushing procedures can cause building inhabitants to become ill, the new study said. A variety of factors can also impact flushing effectiveness, such as clogged or slow-draining outlets or the use of low-flow water appliances, the new study said.

In West Virginia, where residents were not cautioned to open windows or otherwise ventilate their homes during flushing, a large share of health impacts reported after the leak were related to people who inhaled fumes or touched contaminated water during the flushing process, health officials have reported.

Previous research reported that specific details of how the West Virginia flushing protocol distributed by state officials and West Virginia American Water could not be found. Also, previous reports by the WV-TAP team said that the flushing affected different homes in different ways, and was not clearly and uniformly effective.

The new study notes that, while West Virginia officials tested water in some businesses and public buildings, they did not try to test the effectiveness of the flushing by performing home testing during the period when homes were being flushed. Some private and non-profit organizations did such testing at the time, but state officials did not try to use it to determine if the flushing was effective, the new study said.

"Premise drinking water testing data before and after flushing for the other recent incidents was also lacking, the study said.

The new study also reported that, because there is "minimal flushing protocol performance data, flushing should "be conducted liberally where multiple cycles of flushing are carried out rather than a single flushing event.

In West Virginia, state officials rejected a recommendation from federal public health officials that residents be advised to flush their home plumbing systems until they could no longer smell the licorice-like odor of MCHM, the main chemical in the Freedom leak.

Reach Ken Ward Jr.


304-348-1702 or follow

@kenwardjr on Twitter.

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