Part I: Is There Something in the Water, Southern W.Va.?

Jan 14, 2015

Folks in rural southern West Virginia often brush their teeth with bottled water.
Credit Jessical Lilly / WVPublic

In an ongoing look at water infrastructure challenges in the southern region of West Virginia, we consider possible health effects of long-term exposure to contaminated water sources. First: the health impacts of industrial contamination, as well as naturally occurring pollutants.

Southern West Virginia is home to some of the worst health disparities in the country.  Recent studies show folks in McDowell County, for example, have the shortest life expectancies in the country; it’s the 6th poorest county in the US.

The question ever is: Why?

Interim Chair of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences at WVU’s School of Public Health, Dr. Michael McCawley says, all roads lead back to socio-economic status, and lack of economic opportunity. Science these days is full of research that studies how cycles of poverty and stress, and feeling like you have no choices in life, leads consistently to poor health, and shorter life spans. Pin-pointing what exactly makes someone ill, though, is almost impossible, McCawley says, because life is so complicated. But he says long term exposure to compromised water... is bound to leave a mark.

“That’s going to cause infectious disease, gastrointestinal problems, and that can lead to all sorts of other things,” McCawley said.

Industrial Contamination

An aquatic biologist from Wheeling Jesuit University, Dr. Ben Stout, found himself invested in water quality issues in southern West Virginia when he began looking into ecological impacts of Mountaintop Removal over a decade ago. Stout began looking specifically at stream impairment in areas where dirt and land from the tops of ridges were pushed into valleys.

“It was pretty obvious to me that below valley fills, water was pretty tainted, and then it became a question of, ‘Is it getting into the human water supply?’” Stout said. “I started sampling people’s houses; some people’s water is really good, other people’s water is really appalling.”

Stout has tested for and found water spiked with heavy metals and other contaminants.

“Before it’s disturbed it’s a good of water you’re going to find anywhere on the planet. But after that it becomes tainted with heavy metals and bacteria and so forth and becomes unusable except that these people don’t have any recourse,” Stout said.

It’s been widely reported that industrial activity has contaminated community water supplies throughout the state.

Naturally Occurring Pollutants

But aside from industrial activity, Stout points out that naturally occurring minerals and metals (like manganese) can themselves be a cause of serious concern—contaminants that leach naturally from the geology of the region. The effect of manganese specifically hasn’t been investigated thoroughly, but a 2010 drinking water study found that “exposure to manganese at levels common in groundwater is associated with intellectual impairment in children.”

And Stout explained, it’s not easy to get dissolved metals out of water.

“Heavy metals don’t turn into anything else when you boil them,” Stout said. “Mercury stays mercury, and aluminum stays aluminum.”

Stout said over a period of time, people exposed to these contaminants through a variety of pathways such as drinking or showers become ill.

But for all of the concerns about water compromised by natural and industrial sources, and the cancer, decay, infection, and disease that can come with regular exposure to that contamination, many experts agree that the biggest threat in water supplies throughout southern West Virginia (and many areas in the state) and by a long shot is raw sewage.