In the weeks following the Jan. 9 chemical leak into the Elk River, the West Virginia Poison Center in Charleston was a busy place. The center’s poison hotline fielded 2,785 calls from residents in the nine counties affected by exposure to the Crude MCHM-tainted water.
The center now is facing a crisis of its own – proposed funding cuts threaten to shut down those phone lines. For the second year in a row, the Legislature’s proposed budget cuts the center’s funding by 7.5 percent as part of the effort to close a $146 million gap in the 2014-15 state budget. If the cuts are in the final budget being hammered out this week in Charleston, the center also will lose 7.5 percent matching federal funding. This would force the center to close.
The Poison Center is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by doctors, pharmacists and nurses trained to deal with poisonings. It employs West Virginia’s only board-certified medical toxicologist, a physician with expertise on the effects on the human body of various poisons and chemical compounds. It also maintains a database on the toxicology of poisons, drugs and chemicals, and treatment protocols for exposure to toxic elements.
And while it was an essential player after the water crisis, it also is available to any residents of the state who have their own crisis at home. Operators handle more than 42,000 calls each year from West Virginians looking for the most up-to-date poison management recommendations. It does not have to be something as large as a chemical spill; it can be a doctor calling from a hospital emergency room, or a call from a worried mother concerned about something her young child ate.
“The importance of what we do for the state – not only the large issues like the Elk River spill, but also the every day phone calls – is being overshadowed by money and that is a shame,” Carissa McBurney, the center’s community outreach coordinator told the newspaper this week.
The Poison Center performs an invaluable function for state residents. If forced to close, the state would have to seek help from another state to handle these calls. But would people in another state have the expertise on the types of chemicals used in West Virginia on a daily basis? What would these people have done in the wake of Jan. 9? We hope it won’t take another major chemical spill to answer that question.
Legislators should restore funding so when a concerned citizen has questions, someone will be there to take the call.