Politics & Government

Why is lead polluting more than 100 SC waterways? Is it dangerous?

Take a virtual kayaking trip down the Edisto River

Take a virtual tour down the Edisto River and see for yourself why columnist Matt Richardson thinks it's worth the trip.
Up Next
Take a virtual tour down the Edisto River and see for yourself why columnist Matt Richardson thinks it's worth the trip.

Lead, a heavy metal with a toxic bite, has been found in creeks, rivers and lakes across South Carolina, perplexing state regulators and raising concerns about the potential threat to people’s health and the environment.

For the first time, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has identified more than 160 stretches of state waterways that it considers to be “of concern’’ for lead contamination after tests found the metal in the water, according to a report released by the agency last month.

DHEC has not released data showing how much lead is in the water. But the agency says one concern is how lead would affect fish and the aquatic organisms that they feed on.

The state agency says it does not know where the lead came from.

In humans, exposure to lead can cause brain damage in young children who drink water or baby formula contaminated with the heavy metal. Even at low levels, lead can delay puberty in children, stunt their growth and result in lower IQ levels, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

So far, DHEC has not found lead levels that would threaten drinking water supplies or people who fish or swim in the water, but the department still is investigating, spokesman Tommy Crosby said.

DHEC’s findings, outlined in a report the agency files every two years with the federal government, says three sections of S.C. waterways are in the worst shape and in need of cleanup. Those waterways are a stretch of Gills Creek at Bluff Road in Columbia, Camping Creek in Newberry County and Cattail Branch in Chesterfield County.

Most of the waterways in the report, however, need more study to determine how serious the lead problem is, according to DHEC.

Those include stretches of some of South Carolina’s most well-known rivers, including the Great Pee Dee near Florence, the Black near Georgetown, the North Fork of the Edisto in Orangeburg County and the Saluda above Lake Murray. Parts of lakes Marion in Orangeburg County and Hartwell in Oconee County also are listed as needing more study. A section of Four Hole Swamp, an iconic wetland area between Columbia and Charleston, also is on the list of waters of concern.

‘Not ... a concern for drinking water’

Lead, which naturally occurs, previously had not been identified as a widespread problem in S.C. rivers and lakes.

Researchers say the toxic metal can run off the land’s surface and pollute rivers. Industrial operations, such as metal-smelting plants, can pollute the air and land with lead that then can settle into waterways, according to Yale University and the Water Research Center, a website that examines water-quality issues.

How lead might affect drinking water is one of the most immediate questions many people may have. But Crosby said the levels his agency has seen do not indicate a threat to human health. Public waterworks also have ways of treating raw water that is drawn into their plants to filter out most lead, he said.

“Conventional drinking water treatments use a multiple barrier approach that reduces lead from source water, where present,’’ Crosby said in an email to The State. “Data collected from public drinking water systems … have not indicated a concern for drinking water relative to these sites.’’

Lead was not found in the section of the Broad River that supplies Columbia’s downtown drinking-water plant.

Still, DHEC does have questions about how lead is affecting fish and other creatures, Crosby said. Lead in water could hurt wildlife reproduction or kill animals living in the water, depending on the level, the agency says.

Research has found some fish-eating birds in South Carolina, including bald eagles, have toxic levels of lead in their blood, sometimes causing them to become lethargic. However, some of that exposure is related to eating the carcasses of animals killed by hunters using lead shot.

‘Serious health issues’

Eating fish polluted with lead also can be a health concern for people.

South Carolina already has issued warnings against residents eating more than moderate amounts of fish from many of the state’s rivers because of pollution from another heavy metal, mercury.

Riverkeepers in Columbia and Augusta said they are worried about DHEC’s findings and want to know more.

“I have a heard them say there is no public health concern,’’ Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said of DHEC. “I want them to make the case to the public and provide the supporting information.’’

Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus said she wants state lawmakers to look into the issue.

DHEC has had information on lead in water for years but only recently included it in a report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she said.

That report filed with the EPA shows waters in South Carolina that need to be cleaned up or studied more carefully because of various types of pollution. Until this year, widespread evidence of lead in S.C. waterways has not been mentioned in the reports.

Bonitatibus said she is concerned people fishing in areas with lead in the water could be exposed to the toxic metal.

“These are serious health issues,’’ she said. “We need to answer these questions.’’

Where did lead come from?

Crosby said DHEC now is identifying lead in S.C. rivers, lakes and streams because the agency is checking for the toxin at lower concentrations than it did prior to 2009. Since 2009, the agency also has used a different method to detect lead than it did previously.

The new method “will allow more precise and focused evaluation of this issue going forward,’’ Crosby said.

DHEC’s Crosby said the agency doesn’t know why lead has shown up in so many waterways, but it is investigating. Historically, the material has been used in manufacturing for an array of purposes, ranging from bullets and fishing gear to water pipes.

“As part of the next phase of work on this issue, the department will evaluate the potential for man-induced sources with linkage to the water sites,’’ Crosby said in an email.

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.