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Survey Findings Try to Give Clearer Picture of Chemical Spill Impact

Ashton Marra
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Kanawha County residents got a better understanding of the impacts of the January 9 chemical spill on their community Monday evening as results from a scientific survey were released.

Those results show some surprising numbers when it comes to how people found out about the do not use ban, if they ignored instructions and how the spill itself effected not just their health, but also their wallets.

The Kanawha- Charleston Health Department and the University of Charleston teamed up to conduct the phone survey over the course of five days in early April, almost 90 days after the spill occurred.

Perception is what Dr. David Latif with the University Of Charleston School Of Pharmacy said the survey was about, narrowing down how the public felt about four factors: the physical, economic, and psycho-social impacts and the quality of communication.

Participants were chosen at random from a database of county residents’ phone numbers, 4,000 of which were land lines, 2,000 cell numbers.

Factoring in things like ineligibility and refusal to participate, there were 499 respondents at a response rate of almost 60 percent, a number Latif says is usually closer to 25 or 30 percent in most surveys.

Analysis took place over about a month’s time, but Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the county health department, said a lack of funding is preventing them from delving deeper into their results.

Just the same, some findings were presented including:

  • Of the 499 people surveyed, 55 percent found out about the do not use ban on tap water from local television and radio, just 5 percent through social media.

  • While the order was in place, some 23 percent said they continued to use the water, a majority of which was to bathe or wash hands, but about 37 percent of that amount said they were still drinking it.

  • About 31 percent of respondents reported a member of their household experienced some kind of illness they believed to be related to the contaminated water, but only 1 in 4 reported seeking medical treatment for the illness. Even then, a large majority sought treatment through outpatient services like their primary care physician or urgent care centers.

  • A majority of respondents also reported increased feelings of worry, stress, anger and depression during the do not use ban.

  • About half of those surveyed still believe the water is not safe to drink.

When it comes to trustworthiness, local governments faired the best with 25 percent of respondents giving them an A rating. Eighteen percent gave local officials a failing grade, which was by far the smallest amount of ‘F’s.

The prize for least trustworthy went to West Virginia American Water, with 31 percent giving them an F grading.

But there are some limitations to the survey itself. For instance, 43 percent of participants, almost half of the total number, were over the age of 65. Remember that number of only 5 percent who said they found out through social media? The 65-plus group is the least likely to participate in social media. So, what if the age distribution had been different? Would those numbers have changed?

Gutpa said that’s one question on a whole list of those he wishes he could answer, but this study is supposed to be seen as a base for future research to be conducted, research the health department doesn’t have the money to conduct.

“The reality of the situation is, we continued to apply for grants and we’ve gotten turned down,” he said.

“So I would love to say, yea there’s millions of dollars coming this way and everybody’s working to get those, but unfortunately, we haven’t found those millions of dollars.”

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