It doesn't take a scientist to know when your child is sick. It takes a mother. Brooke Wisen instantly knew something was wrong with her 7-year-old son, Michael.
"He hardly ever gets sick, and usually in my house when one gets sick, it's like the plague, everyone gets sick," Wisen said.
Almost two weeks ago, Michael was the only one of four children to suffer from cramps, nausea, and diarrhea, according to his mother. The complaints began soon after Michael took a bath at their home in Charleston.
"He always drinks the water in the shower," Wisen said.
Nearly two days later on January 9, inspectors with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection traced a chemical spill back to Freedom Industries, just outside of Charleston. They found 7,500 gallons of crude MCHM had leaked into the Elk River. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued a State of Emergency for nine counties by 6 p.m. that evening. West Virginia American Water issued a "do not use" order for nearly 100,000 customers in the region. Some waited as long as a week before officials deemed their water "safe."
Wisen took Michael to the emergency room at Women and Children's Hospital that same week. She took him back hours later after Michael's stomach cramps continued. Doctors diagnosed Michael with gastroenteritis, according to discharge papers. While many confuse gastroenteritis with the stomach flu, the National Institutes of Health claims the condition is not a "type of flu at all."
An entry in the U.S. National Library of Medicine reads that "gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the lining of the intestines caused by a virus, bacteria or parasites." The illness spreads through contaminated food or water, and contact with an infected person.
"The CAT scan showed he had inflamed colon and fluid around his intestine," Wisen said.
The family lives less than two miles away from the site. Wisen said she believes the chemical started leaking days before the DEP inspectors detected the spill.
"I don't know if there was enough for them to detect it, but it's been in there," Wisen said. "We were smelling stuff before they even announced it."
On Friday, legislators in a joint committee meeting heard from several experts in water testing and safety.
Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, told committee members it is difficult to determine just how long the chemical 4-Methylcyclohexanol, spill that occurred on Jan. 9 lasted before officials were aware of the leak.
However, he said assuming there were no outlying factors and the reportedly one-inch hole in the tanker truck that contained the crude MCHM simply appeared the spill could have taken up to 15 hours. Although, he said the likely cause of the hole was from corrosion and there was no way to tell how long it took to grow.
"I do not know when the leak began," Ziemkiewicz later wrote in an e-mail Saturday. "I'm not sure anyone knows."
Officials with the DEP reiterated that same sentiment.
"At this time, we have no way of knowing when the leak began," wrote spokesperson Tom Aluise in an e-mail Saturday." The first visual confirmation that MCHM had entered the river was about 12:30 p.m. Thursday."
More than 411 patients have been seen, treated, and released at 10 area hospitals since Jan. 9, according to a spokesperson for the Dept. of Health and Human Resources. Twenty patients have been admitted and released.
The West Virginia Poison Center has received 1,862 calls regarding possible human exposure to the contaminated water.
"They would need to know at the time they were exposed what was the concentration of that chemical in that water," said Dr. Elizabeth Scharman, the director of the WV Poison Control.
State and local leaders have said the water is safe to consume if the water quality levels test below 1 part per million. WVAW lifted the "do not use ban" in all the affected areas once the waters tested below 1 part per million. The CDC derived that measurement in the hours following the spill's discovery.
"Make your own best decisions," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, the executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, during an interview Friday.
Questions remain about how MCHM affects humans. The only available studies examine animals, according to officials with the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
That's why Wisen says she can only rely on herself to protect her family, and trust her gut.
"Trust your intuition," Wisen said. "Don't drink the water, don't bathe your kids in the water."
Mandi Cardosi contributed to this report.