Special Reports

Unsafe levels of lead found in drinking water around S.C. ‘There’s no accountability’

Since 2011, 41 small utilities serving South Carolinians have exceeded the federal safety standard for lead in the water at least once, according to state Department of Health and Environmental Control records.

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Tainted Water

Disease-carrying bacteria, cancer-causing chemicals, toxic nitrates and brain-damaging metals have been found in small water systems across South Carolina.

From the front porch of her house in eastern Richland County, Ketis Jones managed a grim smile while reflecting on the ordeal that her son went through as a child.

Exposed to lead in their home’s drinking water, the boy could not talk in sentences until after he turned 4. He tried to communicate, but his babbling was hard to understand.

Today, 14 years later, Jones says her son is doing fine as a high school student, except for one problem: He struggles with his speech.

It may never be known if the teenager’s speech troubles resulted from lead exposure. But lead in drinking water is an issue in more places than Jones’ neighborhood.

Small utilities across South Carolina are struggling to keep lead out of the water they pipe to customers. Many are located in small, out-of-the- way communities, serving customers who, advocates say, often are forgotten by regulators, politicians and local utility managers.

Since 2011, 41 small utilities serving South Carolinians have exceeded the federal safety standard for lead in the water at least once, according to state Department of Health and Environmental Control records. Violators include trailer parks in the Columbia area, as well as schools, small cities and businesses in other parts of the state. In contrast, only two large water systems violated the lead standard during that time.

Even small amounts of lead can damage the developing brains of infants and young children and, in some cases, cause learning and speech difficulties that last into adulthood.

DHEC says most small water systems meet the standard for lead. And of those cited for lead violations, most now are meeting the safe drinking-water standard, the agency says.

But not all of them.

Belton most recent lead hot spot

Five separate tests conducted at a Chester County pre-school since 2012 have shown lead levels that exceed the federal safety standard of 15 parts per billion. The lead levels in some cases were twice the federal standard.

Agency records also show at least 17 water systems have had high levels of lead in the past two years, including four in the Columbia area.

Many small utilities have trouble keeping lead at acceptable levels because they don’t treat the water to protect customers from the poisonous metal. Statewide, two-thirds of the state’s 379 community utilities that rely on groundwater do not treat water to keep lead from corroding off water pipes, according to DHEC.

Some systems that get water from rivers also have had problems with lead, including the Belton-Honea Path Water Authority, which sends drinking water to thousands in Anderson County. There, high levels of lead were found last year in five homes in the city of Belton.

Belton’s problems may have been caused by a change in water-treatment methods in 2016 that caused lead to flake off pipes and into tap water. The water system never had trouble with lead before that change, said authority manager Mitch Ellenburg.

Only now is the water authority adding corrosion control treatment — at a $12,000-a-year cost — to protect its customers. The treatment is expected to coat water pipes, preventing lead from breaking loose into the water.

”This is going to put that extra, protective barrier out there,’’ said Ellenburg.

‘You are talking about a neurotoxin’

The major concern with lead is that it can crack off lead pipes and joints, even though the water used by a utility was lead-free at its source. By the time the water reaches a person’s home, it can contain flecks of lead that make the water hazardous.

Lead is a particular concern in the Columbia area because many small water systems rely on groundwater to serve customers. South Carolina’s Midlands has some of the most naturally corrosive groundwater in the state, making it more likely to flake lead off of water pipes.

Mae Wu, a health attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said communities shouldn’t take chances if there is any concern about lead because it can damage children’s’ brains.

“When you are talking about vulnerable populations, which is young children, and you are talking about a neurotoxin that can cause permanent damage, it’s really important to make sure we do whatever we can to minimize their exposure to lead,’’ Wu said.

Lead pollution isn’t unique to small water systems. The Flint, Mich., water crisis that exposed children to high lead levels occurred in a city of 100,000.

But small communities served by tiny utilities don’t always get the same level of attention from state regulators or policy makers.

The state of South Carolina needs to pump more money into helping small public utilities keep lead out of the water, while issuing heavier fines against private, for-profit systems that don’t get the job done, said Karen Irick, a Hopkins community leader who lives in the same neighborhood as Jones and her son.

“Why has it taken so long to find money?’’ she asked. “While you try to find money, babies are being born every day and we still are making baby formula out of the water.”

Karen Irick successfully spearheaded a 2005 effort to get clean water to her neighborhood in Hopkins, SC. Here, she stands near the regional water system that now supplies her community. 2/25/19 Tim Dominick tdominick@thestate.com

‘Neglected’ neighborhood

The Franklin Park neighborhood where Irick and Jones live is an example of how lead can threaten a small, forgotten community for decades, residents say.

Residents long had complained about discolored water and spotty service at Franklin Park. But few, if any, knew that lead also had been found for 20 years in the water of some neighborhood homes.

“Nobody had a reason not to trust the quality of the water,’’ Irick said. “No one could have imagined they were drinking lead-tainted water.’’

Then in 2005, The State reported S.C. regulators had known about lead in Franklin Park’s water for 20 years but had been unable to persuade its utility to remove the toxic metal. Piney Grove Utilities had rebuffed requests to do something about the lead, citing the high cost of treating the water.

“Our thing was going on probably 18 to 20 years before anybody even cared enough to try’’ to help, Jones said.

When questioned by The State in 2005 about lead levels in the water, DHEC downplayed concerns, declining to test residents’ blood for lead.

So the State hired a laboratory to test residents’ blood. Those tests found that six of 24 Franklin Park residents had more than twice the national average of lead in their blood, including a 10-year-old child who lived up the street from Jones and her young son.. All of those residents lived in homes that also had elevated lead levels in drinking water from time to time, The State reported.

A seventh Franklin Park resident, Jones’ then-4-year-old son had been tested separately seven times for lead exposure, with tests showing high enough levels to indicate a concern.

In a letter she wrote 15 years ago to state regulators after learning about the lead contamination, Jones pleaded for help to improve Franklin Park’s water.

“High levels of lead in the drinking water is a personal concern to me; about a year ago, my youngest son tested positive twice for elevated levels of lead in his body,’’ Jones said in a handwritten letter. “I really think something needs to be done about this situation.”

Following The State’s reporting, Richland County took over the Franklin Park water system and began treating the water to control lead. Within a year, the community’s lead problems had cleared up.

Jones, who grew up in the area, says her son has grown into a fine, well-adjusted teenager. But she still wonders if lead exposure caused the lingering challenges that require him to take speech therapy.

“The doctors can’t say what it is for sure, but it’s a possibility,” she said.

Irick says the Franklin Park saga should have energized the state’s leaders to put more emphasis on helping small water systems. But that didn’t happen, she said.

“Legislators, state agencies, regulators, the federal EPA, all of those, should have gone to the table and come up with a plan to mitigate problems in other small communities,’’ she said.

‘Silent injury’

One thing is certain: Lead is bad for children.

Medical University of South Carolina professor Routt Reigart, an expert on lead’s effects on children, said it would be difficult to determine if exposure to the metal hurt Jones’ son.

But he said community water systems should be diligent about keeping lead out of drinking water.

“The lead actually causes structural changes in the brain,’’ Reigart said, noting researchers have seen “a loss of brain tissue’’ in young adults exposed to lead as children. That damage, he added, “is not going to go away” later in life.

Speech and learning problems associated with lead exposure have been chronicled by doctors and scientists, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and leading lead researchers, citing multiple studies of children.

One of those was a 2000 study of children in Pittsburgh. Higher lead concentrations in the bones of children ages 11 to 14 were tied to language problems, including being able to process sentences. Higher lead levels in blood were associated with impacts on some parts of the brain associated with speech, the CDC report said, citing a 2006 study in Cincinnati.

Brain damage from lead exposure as a child can last well into adulthood, MUSC’s Reigart said. Research has shown a child exposed to sufficient levels of lead can lose 6 to 7 IQ points, he said.

“It is not a silent killer,” Reigart said. “But it (causes) a silent injury.”

Her experience at Franklin Park has made Ketis Jones wary of ever drinking the water that flows from her tap, even though the lead problems have been resolved..

“We stopped drinking the water,’’ Jones said. “We just do bottled water.”

Findings: Lead’s long-term threat ​

• Since 2011, 43 S.C. utilities have exceeded the federal safe drinking-water standard for lead. Forty-one of those utilities were small water systems, serving about 20,000 South Carolinians.​

• In the past two years, 17 small water utilities serving more than 9,000 South Carolinians have exceeded the federal standard for lead in drinking water.​

• ​About two-thirds of the 379 community water systems that rely on wells don’t treat their water for lead, a neuorotoxin dangerous to children. Virtually all of those systems are small.​

• The Columbia area is particularly vulnerable to lead pollution in drinking water systems that take their water from the ground. The area’s acidic groundwater makes it more likely that lead will corrode off water pipes.​

• The health threat posed by lead is long term. Twenty years after lead levels dropped sharply in a small Richland County neighborhood, a mother still worries her son could have suffered long-term health effects.​

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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.