Elevated levels of lead, a heavy metal that can cause brain and kidney damage, showed up recently in drinking water supplied by a private utility to three communities in suburban Columbia and York County.
Some of the water tested at the Cedarwood subdivision in Lexington County, and the Foxwood and River Hills subdivisions in Fort Mill and Lake Wylie, registered amounts of lead that exceeded a federal safety standard, according to Jan. 27 test results released Monday by Carolina Water Service.
Officials think the lead corroded off of pipes that serve homes in the three subdivisions. The amount of lead in water was up to four times above the federal standard.
Follow-up tests since Jan. 27 show that lead levels have fallen to within safe limits, but Carolina Water Service is required to notify homeowners of its original findings and begin testing more frequently for the metal to make sure there are no more problems in the future.
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Collectively, the three water systems serve about 3,500 customers, with the River Hills system having the majority of the customers.
“We know the presence of lead in drinking water at any level can be a concern,’’ Carolina Water president Rick Durham said in a statement. “As a public water provider, we have a responsibility to protect our customers.’’
Karen Summers, general manager of the River Hills Community Association at Lake Wylie, said she’s not concerned about the findings because the follow-up testing revealed a drop in lead levels. She also noted that the problem wasn’t in the water supply, but in some of the pipes at River Hills.
“It really is a non-issue,’’ Summers said.
The State newspaper was unable to locate a spokesperson for Cedarwood, a community near the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. About 125 homes are served there by Carolina Water.
Carolina Water officials said they believe the elevated lead levels resulted from errors in how water samples were taken for testing. In this case, it appears some of the homeowners did not flush their taps before collecting samples for the Department of Health and Environmental Control to analyze, Durham said.
Lead can make people ill who drink water laced with the metal. Even people exposed to relatively low levels can, over time, develop kidney problems and nervous system disorders. Lead is particularly dangerous to young children because it can cause brain damage.
Carolina Water Service’s discovery comes as attention has focused recently on the dangers of lead in drinking water following a scandal in Flint, Mich. There, drinking water was contaminated by lead that washed off pipes and into people’s tap water. Officials in Michigan have been under fire for allowing the problem to occur and then failing to tell the public for months.
Carolina Water had no record of lead problems at Cedarwood, Foxwood or River Hills over the past 13 years, until the recent test results.
In South Carolina, company officials said people should let water run for about 30 seconds before drinking it, particularly if sinks haven’t been used in some time. That washes any lead out that might have corroded off pipes, they said.
Carolina Water Service is a division of Utilities Inc., an Illinois-headquartered utility company that serves some 300,000 customers across the country. From the early 1990s to 2013, companies affiliated with Utilities Inc. had more violations of environmental laws in South Carolina than any other person, company or government, The State newspaper reported in 2013.The company said it had acquired some of its water and sewer systems, knowing they needed upgrades, but that improvements would take time.