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Toxic chemicals showing up in private wells across SC, study shows. How big is the threat?

In World
February 10, 2024

Toxic chemicals are showing up in private wells in the Columbia area and other parts of South Carolina, but state regulators are downplaying the threat, saying most of the pollution found recently is within federal safety standards.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control says that of the 353 wells tested, only seven had amounts of forever chemicals that exceed current federal safety levels. All told, more than half the wells tested showed no signs of forever chemical pollution.

But in releasing test data Friday, DHEC said it has found some amount of forever chemicals in 155 different wells across the state. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which says any level of PFAS in drinking water could be hazardous to people who are exposed over long periods, has proposed a strict new standard because of the threat.

DHEC’s effort focused on testing wells in areas where the risk of PFAS contamination was suspected to be the greatest. Data show DHEC tested wells in about 30 of the state’s 46 counties.

Wells in the Columbia area and south of Charlotte appear most vulnerable to pollution from forever chemicals, formally known as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, according to test data and DHEC officials. Those with PFAS-tainted wells can safeguard their water by installing a filter, the department says.

“We are detecting more PFAS in private wells in the middle of the state, unfortunately right here in Richland County, and in Lexington County, to some degree in Sumter … near the sandhills region,’’ DHEC’s Ray Holberger said, noting that some elevated concentrations have been found in wells in York County, south of Charlotte.

In Lexington County, about half of the more than 40 wells tested contained some level of the two most common types of forever chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS, DHEC data show. About a dozen contained PFAS levels above the proposed new federal standard.

About half of the more than 30 wells tested in York County contained forever chemicals, while more than 40% of the 16 wells tested in Richland County contained PFAS, according to DHEC data.

Forever chemical pollution can come from a variety of sources, including textile factories, farms and wastewater treatment plants, although Holberger couldn’t say where the well pollution found recently originated.

“It’s hard to say exactly what these sources are,’’ he said. “They don’t tend to be very obvious, but we are working on trying to (learn) what’s going on.’’

Forever chemicals are of increasing concern across the United States. Exposure to them can increase risks of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease and immune system deficiencies, among other ailments. PFAS is not the only cause of many conditions, but some doctors say it often contributes to health ailments.

PFAS chemicals were developed more than 80 years ago and have been used in a variety of products, such as non-stick frying pans, stain resistant carpet and waterproof clothing. They are called forever chemicals because they don’t break down easily in the environment.

DHEC’s well test results follow agency findings in rural Darlington County, where sludge from a textile factory was spread on farms as fertilizer from the early 1990s until about 10 years ago, The State reported in July. The sludge contained PFAS, and many of the wells people drank from for years are contaminated today with forever chemicals.

Some of those who drank the water have complained of illnesses, The State reported. So far, DHEC said its testing has not found well-pollution problems in farming communities, aside from Darlington County.

Since 2019, state and federal officials have identified 46 wells in the Darlington area with some levels of PFAS. More than 30 of those wells had PFAS levels above the EPA’s new proposed drinking water limit of 4 parts per trillion for the two most common types, The State reported. Those findings are in addition to the well testing data released Friday.

The EPA has not finalized the standard of 4 parts per trillion, an amount far lower than current guidelines on forever chemicals in drinking water. So DHEC did not base its recent findings that few wells exceeded standards on the proposed level. Instead, the department based its findings on levels of 40 and 60 parts per trillion, which are now used by government agencies for the two most common types of PFAS.

Statewide, Holberger said about 60 of the wells tested had PFAS levels above the proposed standard of 4 parts per trillion for the two most common types of forever chemicals. That would mean water in those wells would exceed the safe drinking water limits if the new standard is approved by the EPA. Holberger said many of those readings are not far above the 4 parts per trillion proposed standard.

Officials said they had no word on when the EPA may release the new standard. It’s possible it could be changed to a higher number before it is finalized.

DHEC’s well testing results provided some good news, compared to other testing it has conducted this year. Forever chemicals are not as widespread in groundwater wells as in rivers or public drinking water systems.

Virtually every river tested has shown some level of forever chemicals, according to DHEC. At the same time, two of the most common types of PFAs have shown up in about 45% of the drinking water systems across South Carolina, including Columbia’s, according to DHEC.

In addition, South Carolina’s environmental agency is advising the public to limit consumption of certain types of fish because they are contaminated with forever chemicals. DHEC recently found about a dozen species in 18 waterways across the state contained forever chemicals.

“PFAS appeared to be less prevalent in groundwater than in the state’s surface water,’’ Holberger said.

People who are concerned that their wells may be polluted with PFAS can apply to DHEC for the agency to conduct free tests. People seeking well tests should fill out an online form on DHEC’s website.

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