Politics & Government

Itchy skin, hair loss and uncertainty: What’s in SC city’s water?

After moving into an old home in Denmark four years ago, Palmer Williams says her skin began to itch almost every time she took a shower.

Then, Williams said, her hair began falling out.

Already frustrated with the dark-brown water that gushed from her tap, Williams moved away earlier this year, no longer willing to stay in the 2,500-square-foot house she spent her life savings to repair.

Today, Williams has a bald spot on her scalp and a hole in her pocket.

“I took my hard-earned money and put it into this house,’’ Williams said recently, sobbing as she visited her former home in Denmark, now for sale. “I was on a fixed income, and the (insurance) money that my husband died and left me. ... But I couldn’t stay.’’

Williams, 66, is among an increasingly vocal group of residents questioning the quality of the drinking water in Denmark, a community where workers injected a little-known chemical into the water for 10 years.

The issue has attracted national attention, sparked handouts of bottled water and prompted two lawsuits in the past month.

In a rare move last summer, pesticide regulators at Clemson University ordered the city to stop using the product — known by the trade name HaloSan — because it wasn’t approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA officials have said HaloSan’s use is uncommon in public drinking water systems, if it ever has been used at all, according to emails obtained by The State. The well also has been shut down.

The active ingredient in HaloSan can cause skin and eye problems if too much is added to the water. A key question is whether Denmark injected the proper amount and if it affected the health of the city’s 3,300 residents.

For weeks, state regulators have said they considered HaloSan to be harmless. Now, they are having second thoughts about whether Denmark and state and federal officials kept close enough tabs on its use.

“We have our own questions now,’’ said Mike Marcus, who oversees water programs at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. “We are looking internally at the product and the process.’’

S.C. regulators have been unable to show how much of the chemical was injected into Denmark’s water from 2008 until this year, when Clemson pesticide regulators ordered the city to quit using it. But records indicate past problems. A 2011 DHEC fine cited Denmark for failing to understand how its HaloSan injection system worked.

Myra Reece, DHEC’s environmental director, said the state agency is talking with the federal EPA about HaloSan’s potential health effects. The state agency told Denmark it could use HaloSan in 2008 but didn’t realize the material did not have EPA authorization, Reece and Marcus said.

Meanwhile, DHEC officials have learned that North Carolina regulators banned the use of HaloSan in 2006 in drinking water. N.C. officials were concerned HaloSan could cause a buildup of toxic chemicals in drinking water, records show.

“I guess, by maybe having questions, we are not comfortable’’ with HaloSan, Marcus said. “We have to represent the health and safety to the citizens of the state.’’

HaloSan is a product manufactured by Berry Systems of Lugoff, on the outskirts of Columbia. It was advertised as an aid in cleaning wells to prevent clogs that would make wells less productive. A representative of Berry Systems declined comment when reached by The State.

Denmark had used HaloSan to kill iron slime that was threatening to stop up one of its municipal wells, which supplied about 10 percent of Denmark’s drinking water. Mayor Gerald Wright said that, until this summer, the city had been told by DHEC the chemical product was fine to use.

NSF International, a nationally recognized organization that certifies chemical compounds, says HaloSan is safe, when used properly, and is similar to other products that have been approved by the EPA. Those products include virtually the same ingredient, known commonly as BCDMH, a chlorinated chemical that kills bacteria.

“NSF International toxicologists determined that BCDMH can be used to treat drinking water,’’ if used at proper concentrations, the organization said in an email to The State.

‘They need to look’

Complaints about water quality are not unique to Denmark. Many communities across the country are struggling with aging pipes and a lack of money to fix them.

However, the furor in Denmark is particularly loud these days.

Questions about HaloSan’s use have spiked since CNN and The State reported on the issue Nov. 11. CNN was the first to report on questions about HaloSan.

DHEC can’t say what caused Williams’ skin problems. Any number of things could result in itching and hair loss. But Williams thinks it was the water, adding the itching stopped when she moved to Orangeburg earlier this year.

“They need to look at this,” said Williams, a retired home health-care worker. “But they should have been looking into it way before now.’

Long before the HaloSan issue arose, some Denmark residents complained about the quality of the water the city supplies them.

Many residents buy bottled water or drive eight miles to a natural spring in Blackville, where they fill up jugs, rather than drink what flows from the tap in Denmark.

Some residents complain of foul-smelling, discolored water that stains their sinks and makes their clothes dingy after washing.

At a Nov. 19 public meeting, Denmark resident Jimmie Funches brought a small plastic bottle of water to illustrate the problem. The water he took from his tap that day was a brownish, muddy color, but that isn’t unusual, said Funches, a Denmark native who returned home in 2010 after a career in the Navy.

Even when the water runs clear, “you can still see different particles’’ in it, Funches said.

Records show Denmark has failed eight of 15 state water-system inspections since 2005, including a 2018 inspection that found four major problems, including ants swarming one of its wells. During those years, the state noted issues with poor maintenance and a failure to perform basic duties, such as flushing out the system periodically.

Minutes from a 2009 City Council meeting show Denmark’s public works director warned of problems. He said some of the small city’s chlorine cylinders were in such bad shape that one of them leaked, causing a potentially life-threatening situation.

DHEC has fined Denmark $4,200 in the past decade for problems with its drinking-water system, far below the amount it could have been penalized, records show. The state Safe Drinking Water Act allows DHEC to issue fines of $5,000 a day for each violation.

Water issues ‘serious’ in 2010, doctor wrote

Some residents, including Funches, worry the water system’s problems are worse than just discolored water. They are afraid to drink or bathe in the water.

Funches, 56, said the revelation that HaloSan was in the water this year “took it to a complete other level.’’

Some residents are so upset they have hired lawyers. Hundreds have stood in line since Thanksgiving, awaiting cases of free bottled water from a law firm that is suing over the HaloSan issue.

Others say they can’t rely on the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to give them straight answers.

“I don’t trust them, period, and they know it,’’ said Eugene Smith, 74, who has complained about Denmark’s water for years. Unsafe levels of lead, a deadly toxin, were found in his tap water at one point, Smith said.

In November, five residents filed two lawsuits against Denmark after learning it had injected HaloSan into its water system for 10 years.

CNN news analyst Bakari Sellers, a former state representative who grew up in Denmark, is among the attorneys who filed suit. Sellers said he is not surprised by the HaloSan questions, given Denmark’s track record..

In a 2011 enforcement order, DHEC said water operators knew little about the system that injected HaloSan into one of Denmark’s wells. The lack of knowledge was serious enough that Denmark brought the manufacturer in to train workers on how the system operated.

While a state representative, Sellers pushed unsuccessfully for a regional water system to include Denmark. He also wrote DHEC for help in 2010, saying some residents had “medical concerns associated with the water supply.’’

That year, a doctor said Denmark’s water apparently was causing a skin ailment, known as dermatitis, in several local citizens, including Smith.

“The dermatitis is believed to be caused by the water supply in Denmark,’’ Dr. Gail D. Washington wrote Sellers in a Feb. 23, 2010, letter. “Unfortunately, there are several .... patients that I have had to treat that had the same complaint’’ as Smith.

Washington’s letter said Denmark’s water-quality woes were “serious,’’ asking Sellers to help address the problems so residents could “live healthier lives.’’

‘Quit spreading rumors’

Mayor Wright says Denmark is making progress in fixing its water system, using government grants to replace old pipes and worn-out wells.

“We’ve been responsible, but we’ve also been responsive,’’ Wright said. “That’s all I know to do. I live here — lived here all my life. I’m just as concerned as anybody about the quality of water.’’

Denmark officials declined to tell The State how much they have spent to repair the aging water system. But Wright said Denmark has drilled two new wells and added badly needed fire hydrants, while also working on its aging water pipes.

Wright has been criticized for refusing to allow Virginia Tech water researcher Marc Edwards, who helped expose the Flint, Mich., water crisis, to test Denmark’s wells for contamination. But, he noted, DHEC and the University of South Carolina haven’t found problems in tests of Denmark’s wells that they have done, as recently as this spring.

Some of Denmark’s problems with brown water are caused by old, dead-end pipes that collect sediment, Wright said. When the city flushes pipes in its system, water comes out brown until the sediment clears, he said.

Other problems that residents complain about are no different than in other communities, Wright said. Low levels of iron and manganese, for instance, can contribute to discoloration and odors, state officials say.

Former Denmark Mayor Sam Neeley said many residents are jumping to conclusions that the water is not safe.

“We need ... to find somebody to find out the facts and quit spreading rumors,’’ said the 92-year-old Neeley, who said he has been drinking Denmark’s water for almost 70 years. “We don’t need to get all worked up about stuff, if we don’t know precisely what we are talking about.’’

But Sellers and other critics say the city, DHEC and the EPA haven’t done enough to protect Denmark residents.

“It is a city strapped for resources,’’ said Sellers, who works at the Strom Law Firm in Columbia. “The state government doesn’t care and the federal government doesn’t care.’’

The town has plenty to answer for, others say.

“It’s just a very poorly maintained water system,’’ said Shelia Arroyo of the Harrell Law Firm in Charleston, which also has filed a suit. “They have had years and years and years of unsatisfactory reports of the water system in general.’’

For Williams, the once dilapidated house she bought in 2014 — and repaired at an estimated cost of $80,000 — is a painful memory of Denmark’s water woes.

Today, Williams lives in an apartment in Orangeburg, too small for all her belongings, some of which remain in the Denmark house.

“I feel like I’ve lost everything,’’ Williams said. “I don’t have enough money to re-establish myself over again to go out and purchase another house. I don’t have money like that anymore. I was supposed to live here until I passed away.”

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.