Politics & Government

SC says injecting chemical into drinking water was safe. Researcher skeptical

How’s the water in Denmark, SC? Researcher is concerned

Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering researcher at Virginia Tech, and a group of graduate students collected water samples from several Denmark, SC homes in September 2017 and tested for lead and other contaminants.
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Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering researcher at Virginia Tech, and a group of graduate students collected water samples from several Denmark, SC homes in September 2017 and tested for lead and other contaminants.

Despite criticism from a nationally known scientist, S.C. regulators say the chemical injected into a small town’s drinking water without federal approval likely did not make anyone ill during the 10 years it was used.

Regulators at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said Thursday the chemical put in the water may have helped Denmark by keeping a well from clogging up. It was the state agency’s first comments since news outlets reported on the chemical’s use earlier this week.

“We feel it’s safe,’’ said Mike Marcus, a veteran DHEC regulator who runs the agency’s water division. “We do not believe that this has translated into adverse health effects for the users.’’

Thursday’s statement by DHEC is part of a simmering debate over Denmark’s drinking water. Questions about the chemical, known by the trade name HaloSan, sparked a lawsuit Thursday against the town of Denmark for putting it in the water. Three law firms represent residents concerned about the injections.

The chemical has rarely, if ever, been used in public water systems. It was being used to kill iron slime that threatened to clog one of Denmark’s four wells.

Clemson University regulators ordered Denmark to stop using HaloSan after the discovery last summer that it was not approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But Marcus said another testing organization, called NSF, has approved the chemical for use in public drinking water systems. NSF is an independent organization that tests products to make sure they meet public health standards. Anyone selling or distributing water treatment products must comply with NSF standards, according to the organization’s website.

That’s why DHEC signed off on the use of the chemical, officials said.

“The NSF has been very constant that HaloSan has been an approved product,’’ Marcus said.

Reached Thursday night, Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, who has been studying the Denmark water system, criticized DHEC for trying “to do damage control.’’

If not used properly, the ingredients in HaloSan can be toxic to people, causing skin and eye irritation, the EPA says.

Edwards, known nationally for his work to expose the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis, said DHEC’s assertions are misleading. HaloSan never was intended to be used routinely in drinking water, he said. It was supposed to be used periodically to help unclog wells, but Denmark used it more than that, he said.

“The NSF registration is not for chemicals continually dosed to drinking water,’’ said Edwards, who has examined NSF documents about HaloSan. “The registration is for chemicals that are used in an industrial process, and might find their way into drinking water, in a very dilute form. So it is disconcerting that DHEC is still defending the use of this chemical that is not approved by the EPA.’’

Edwards said the public may never know if the chemical affected anyone’s health. It is unclear what amount of HaloSan went into drinking water.

“It is 100 percent uncertain,’’ he said.

DHEC’s Marcus said the chemical was not fed constantly into the water system, only when one of the town’s four wells was in use. DHEC officials also said agency inspections have not found HaloSan was fed into the well system at unsafe levels. Well records, kept by drinking water operators for the town, verify that, Marcus said. The state agency says it inspects those records at least annually but sometimes more often.

The HaloSan issue is one of several concerns residents of Denmark have expressed about the quality and price of their drinking water in recent years. In addition to Thursday’s state lawsuit against the town by the Strom Law firm and two others, a Charleston law firm also is investigating questions about the town’s drinking water. The Harrell firm will hold a meeting Friday night with town residents and Edwards in Denmark.

Denmark resident Deanna Miller-Berry, who is concerned about the town’s drinking water, said DHEC’s response that HaloSan was safe is not surprising.

“Of course, they would say that,’’ Miller-Berry said, declining further comment.

Sammy Fretwell has written about the environment for more than 20 years. Among the matters he covers are climate change, wildlife issues, nuclear policy, pollution, land protection, coastal development, energy and state environmental policy. Fretwell, who grew up in Anderson County, is a University of South Carolina graduate. Reach him at 803 771 8537.