Lead has tainted drinking water in more than two dozen South Carolina communities during the past five years at levels that exceed a federal safety standard, according to data released Friday by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Most of the utility systems with elevated lead levels were small ones near Columbia and Rock Hill, but DHEC also has found lead pollution in pockets of the Lowcountry and western South Carolina, records show. The State newspaper requested the information in response to the water crisis in Flint, Mich., this year.
DHEC suspects elevated amounts of the toxic metal resulted from corrosive water washing lead from pipes that serve homes, although officials said this week they will launch a special study to learn more.
“We just want to try and determine what the factors are that may be leading to some of these small, rural systems having exceedences” of federal standards for lead, DHEC water official David Baize said in an interview with The State.
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The department said people should not be unduly alarmed because homeowners can take simple steps to avoid lead exposure. Letting cold water run for about 30 seconds before drinking or cooking with it should flush out most lead from lead and copper pipes, Baize said.
Baize also said not all of the elevated lead levels have occurred every year, only at times during the past five years. He said systems are required by federal law to tell the public about the problem and take steps to reduce lead in water.
Put in perspective, DHEC officials said the water systems with elevated lead levels represent only four percent of the nearly 700 systems that test for lead contamination in South Carolina.
But Karen Irick, a Richland County resident, said people should pay close attention when lead is reported in their water. Irick was among a small group of Hopkins residents whose drinking water experienced elevated lead levels for parts of 20 years. Only after Richland County took over the private water system and began treating the water in 2005 did lead levels drop.
“Absolutely, people should be concerned,’’ Irick said. “The bottom line is that no level of lead is safe. It doesn’t matter how small it is, or how much it exceeds the federal limit.”
People exposed to lead can contract an array of health problems, ranging from kidney failure to nervous system disorders. Children under six are most vulnerable. They can suffer permanent brain damage from exposure to the heavy metal, even at relatively low levels. Lead in drinking water often comes from service pipes, instead of from the source.
Baize said the agency is well aware of the dangers and will work to help water systems with elevated lead levels resolve their problems.
“The goal is zero’’ lead in drinking water, said Baize, an assistant water bureau chief at DHEC.
Baize said all but four of the 28 systems that registered elevated lead levels are still working to resolve problems. Many are groundwater systems. The four systems that have resolved their lead problems are in York, Lexington and Abbeville counties, the agency said.
The agency’s findings of elevated lead levels are based on a federal standard, or “action level,” of 15 parts per billion of lead in drinking water. Any water system registering more than 15 parts per billion must take steps to reduce lead. That includes educating the public, controlling corrosion of lead from pipes, and additional sampling
DHEC’s lead data show that 10 water systems in the Columbia area experienced elevated lead levels at times during testing from 2011 to 2015. Lead levels generally ranged from slightly more than the 15 parts per billion standard to three times the standard. Six of the systems that exceeded the standard were in Lexington County and four were in Richland County, according to DHEC. Among them:
▪ AAA Hilton Sound, which serves 50 people.
▪ CWS Cedarwood, which serves 307 people.
▪ AAA Ridge Point, which serves 85 people. DHEC said this system has resolved problems with lead.
▪ Triple Acres Mobile Home Park, which serves 38 people.
▪ Pine Ridge Mobile Home Park, which serves 100 people.
▪ Sand Mountain Mobile Home Park, which serves 40 people.
▪ Percival Estates Mobile Home Park, which serves 18 people.
▪ Lakewood Mobile Home Park, which serves 147 people.
▪ Piney Lane Mobile Home Park, which serves 24 people.
▪ Lower Richland Mobile Home Park, which serves 31 people.
Water system representatives reached by The State said they’re trying to keep lead in check.
Linda Rutland, the office manager for AAA Utilities in Lexington, said lead problems identified by DHEC at Hilton Sound were coming from one house.
Rutland said her company, which has 11 water systems, also might look at installing corrosion controls at Hilton Sound. Corrosion treatment is used in most major water systems to coat lead and copper pipes, which keeps lead from getting into drinking water. Irick said corrosion control treatment helped clean up her water system in Richland County a decade ago.
The department’s data on water systems with elevated lead levels was released in response to questions from The State newspaper. The data’s release comes at a time of increased attention on lead in drinking water after the crisis in Flint, Mich. There, lead corroded off of pipes, into tap water and threatened children’s health. State and local officials in Michigan have been heavily criticized for allowing the problem to occur and failing to tell the public in a timely manner.
DHEC officials said South Carolina has adequate controls so that a similar problem would not occur here, but they said more research is needed on lead and small water systems that tend to have the most trouble complying with federal drinking water standards.
Statewide, York County had about a half dozen systems that exceeded federally recommended safe lead levels, including the city of Tega Cay and the River Hills subdivision at Lake Wylie. Collectively, the two systems serve a population of more than 13,000, according to DHEC. The agency said Tega Cay was one of the four systems that had resolved problems with lead.
Officials with Carolina Water Service, which owns the River Hills and Cedarwood systems, said earlier this week they are investigating the issue, but the higher lead readings might have resulted from flawed water tests. The company noted that other lead tests did not reflect problems.
DHEC also found the town of Allendale exceeded the federal lead standard, as well as the DCWS Ashley Phosphate water system in Dorchester County. That system, which serves nearly 20,000 people, was among the largest systems statewide with elevated lead levels. It had a lead exceedence in 2013, records show.
For now, the department plans to establish an office of rural water to help small water systems resolve problems complying with drinking water laws, said Myra Reece, chief of the agency’s environmental division. That office will look at an array of matters involving small systems, beyond lead contamination. She hopes to have the office running within a month, Reece said.
“Small and medium sized water systems struggle with many issues,’’ Baize said. “It’s beyond just this lead issue.’’
Water systems with elevated lead levels
The following water systems had lead readings higher than federal standards at least once during the past five years:
AAA Hilton Sound, population 50; AAA Ridge Point S/D, population 85; Town of Bowman, population 1,298; Cedar Valley MHP, population 290; Clarendon Co W&SA, population 240; CM Steel Inc, population 94; Cold Springs School, population 41.
Also, CWS Cedarwood, population 307; CWS Foxwood, population 520; Fishing Creek POA, population 102; Lakewood MHP, population 147; Lower Richland MHP, population 31; Blessed Hope School, population 231; Oyster Park, population 40; Percival Estates MHP, population 18; Pine Ridge MHP, population 100.
Pinehurst S/D, population 101; Piney Lane MHP, population 24; Supermetal Holdings USA, population 90; Triple Acres MHP, population 38; Edgemoor Headstart, population 100; Town of Branchville, population 1,293; Sand Mountain MHP, population 40; Shiloh Water System, population 645; CWS River Hills S/D, population 8,566; City of Tega Cay #2, population 3,850; Town of Allendale, population 4,070; 1DCWS Ashley Phosphate, population 18,956;