Several schools in the Charleston, W.Va. area have dismissed students amid ongoing concerns over water quality, nearly a month after a massive chemical spill in the Elk River.
Students at Riverside High School in Belle were sent home early on Wednesday, according to the Wall Street Journal. Several students reported burning sensations in their noses and eyes and two people were sent to a local hospital, including one teacher who fainted. A nearby elementary school was also closed early on Wednesday.
Students' reported symptoms are consistent with exposure to 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol, or MCHM, which was released in the Jan. 9 spill and contaminated the drinking water for about 300,000 residents for over a week. The chemical, which is used to process coal, has a strong licorice-like smell.
Despite recent testing at some area schools that found no remaining crude MCHM in the water, officials at Riverside High and two additional schools that closed on Thursday have reported the telltale smells of the chemical. No hospitalizations were reported from these other schools, but students were dismissed "out of an abundance of caution," Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro told the Charleston Gazette.
A federal official told West Virginians on Wednesday that their water is safe to drink. "You can drink it. You can bathe in it," Dr. Tanja Popovic, acting director of the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said according to the Associated Press.
Despite reassurances of water safety, some residents remain skeptical. W.Va. Gov. Earl Tomblin (D) told residents on Jan. 21 that "it's your decision" to use the water or not. "I'm not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe," he said. "But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don't use it."