In two weeks, Lancaster County officials at the Catawba River Water Treatment Plant say they will know whether their month-long efforts to control the level of a chlorine byproduct in the water supply have worked.
Lancaster County residents were notified last month that their drinking water contained higher-than-allowable concentrations of trihalomethanes.
Trihalomethanes occur as a byproduct of chlorine interacting with organic matter in water.
Throughout the month, employees at the county's water treatment plant have been treating the water with a new technique. It takes 30 days to completely turn over the water system and see if the new technique is working, said plant director Mike Bailes. Samples were taken July 16 and sent to an independent lab for testing. Bailes expects to get the results from those tests by Aug. 6.
"That will give us a clear picture of where we are," Bailes said.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has set the maximum acceptable level of trihalomethanes at 80 molecules per billion molecules of water, or .08 mg/L.
But Black Horse Run resident Meta Wasson didn't want to wait for the county's results. Both she and her husband have been drinking bottled water since they received the notification from the county.
Wasson had independent tests done on her water. Results last week showed .12 mg/L of total trihalomethanes, more than the .08 mg/L accepted by the EPA.
Studies have shown long-term exposure to higher than acceptable levels of trihalomethanes can cause liver, kidney and nervous system problems and lead to an increased cancer risk.
"I'm concerned. Very concerned," Wasson said. "We've had a tremendous amount of cancer in our neighborhood and that is a concern."
Wasson also worries about the time it takes for residents to get notification about the levels in the water. Samples of drinking water tested last December showed higher than normal levels of trihalomethanes. Water tested in January showed even higher levels. However, the county did not find out from DHEC about those violations until April, according to Bailes.
Right now, the water treatment plant is using an independent lab to do testing because it can return results more quickly than DHEC, Bailes said, adding that he plans to continue using the independent lab to monitor levels even after they are back in the "normal" range.
Residents have also expressed concerns about taking showers, not just about drinking the contaminated water, worried that exposure to the chemical itself could be harmful. But, Bailes said, there hasn't been enough research done to know whether showering would be harmful or not.
Until the levels of trihalomethane return to normal, Bailes said, concerned residents can use an activated charcoal filter to filter their drinking water. Boiling the tap water also reduces the levels of trihalomethanes, he said.
Bailes' three grandchildren, ages 2 to 4, are drinking the water without a filter, he added.
"Because I know it will be fixed before too long," Bailes said. "We're going to get it fixed. It's just not an easy fix."