Some residents are wary of drinking local tap water.
Drinking water supplied to Lancaster County residents in December and January exceeded maximum contamination levels for a byproduct of the treatment process and the county water and sewer district is still trying to fix the problem. Despite assurances from officials that the water is safe, some residents prefer not to take chances.
"I noticed at times [the water] smelled and tasted bad," Susanne Rivet said. "Six months ago it got to the point where I'd get nauseous each time I drank it."
Rivet lives in Greenville now, but still spends several days each week in Indian Land taking care of her mother. When the water started making her sick, she said, she switched to bringing gallon jugs filled from her tap in Greenville. Now that she has read a notice from the water authority about trihalomethanes contamination, she has convinced her mother to also use only the Greenville water.
She had been bringing two gallons each trip, now she plans to bring as many as six.
Samples tested last December showed higher than normal levels of trihalomethanes. Water tested in January showed even higher levels. However, because of the way the water is tested by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, the district did not find out about the violations until April, according to Mike Bailes at the LCWSD Water Treatment Plant.
The readings from December and January came on the heels of another reading from September that also showed a higher than allowed concentration of trihalomethanes. The water and sewer district wasn't notified of the September reading until March. Because the high readings came in two or more consecutive quarters, the district was required by state law to send out a public notice about the issue, Bailes said.
That notice began to show up in county residents' mailboxes last Monday along with their latest bills.
"We started notifying everyone as soon as we found out," Bailes said. "It's hard for us to fix it if we don't know about it when it's happening."
DHEC takes quarterly samples of the water in every public water system in the state, but it never tells the systems which month in the quarter it is testing. Performing the necessary laboratory work on the samples causes the delay in notifying water systems when they are in violation.
Individual notices included an error regarding when certain equipment was replaced at the treatment plant. LCWSD replaced a generator at the plant in February, not last October.
Once Bailes was aware of the water quality problem, he brought in a chemical engineer to help address the problem, he said. First he tried adjusting the treatment process using the same chemicals the plant had been using, but testing performed in-house showed the new process was not working, so the engineer suggested trying different chemicals. Last week, Bailes was waiting for the chemicals to arrive. They were scheduled to be delivered Tuesday, June 24, and by this time, the new process could be underway.
Trihalomethanes occur as a byproduct of chlorine interacting with organic matter in water. The Environmental Protection Agency has set the maximum acceptable level of trihalomethanes at 80 molecules of trihalomethanes for every billion molecules of water. Studies have shown that 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.
"This is one of those things where you have to drink gallons and gallons a day over 60 to 70 years to see any effect," DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said.
But that is doing little to comfort many in the county that have been drinking, cooking with and bathing in contaminated water.
Linda Headrick, who lives near Rivet's mother, is wondering if the health problems her, her husband and their cats have been experiencing over the last year could be related to the trihalomethanes.
"My cats have been having kidney problems for a year, my blood pressure was up a year ago, my husband's liver enzymes were up a year ago too," Headrick said. "You can be exposed to it while showering, not just drinking, and boiling the water doesn't help."
Once trihalomethanes are in the water, the only way to get them out is through a specific type of osmosis filter, according to Steve Klaine, a professor of Biological Sciences, and Interim Director of the Institute of Environmental Toxicology at Clemson University.
"Many studies with animals have shown acute toxicities in the liver and kidneys, even cancer," Klaine said. "But I have not heard of trihalos affecting blood pressure."
He added that those studies showed the toxicities at highly concentrated levels and that all the research he knows of shows the danger from trihalomethanes comes from long-term exposure.
Bailes said the chemical engineer he hired thinks lower stream flows due to the drought may be a contributing factor. But there are other questions still remaining, such as why does the water going to Kershaw, Heath Springs and into Union County not have the same trihalomethanes level as in Lancaster?
"No one can tell me why," Bailes said.
"It's a real subtle technique, almost an art, to chlorinating enough to kill bacteria and microorganisms, but not so much that trihalos form," Klaine said.