Decades before dangerous levels of lead were detected in Flint, Michigan’s water system, Charleston’s drinking water was contaminated with more lead than any other city its size in the country.
In fact, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency released lead concentration data for the nation’s 130 largest public water systems in 1992, Charleston topped the list.
The contamination was traced to lead-corroding household pipes and faucets. Local officials fixed the problem by introducing orthophosphates to the water supply, which coat indoor plumbing, thereby reducing corrosion and the amount of lead that may leach into the water.
Bobby Maguire, who owns a house on Gibbes Street downtown, remembers he had his family’s drinking water tested almost immediately.
“Once that was done, we had our children tested ... and they were normal,” Maguire said. “Of course, we were very relieved. Still, occasionally, I’ll have my water tested.”
Phosphates were recently added to Flint’s water supply.
Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech engineering professor, whose team tested Flint’s water and found elevated lead levels, recently told the Associated Press he was mystified by Michigan’s failure to use phosphates in the first place.
Edwards said he had never heard of such a decision elsewhere. He has been studying lead contamination of drinking water for 25 years.
“Corrosion control is the best investment a utility can make,” he said.
The amount of lead in water is measured in “parts per billion.” Any measurement lower than 15 parts per billion in water is considered safe, although health agencies emphasize that even trace amounts of lead may be hazardous, especially for babies.
Lead poisoning, if untreated, may delay physical and mental development. At very high levels, lead exposure may cause seizures, coma and death.
Last month, the lead in at least eight Flint homes exceeded 100 parts per billion. In the early 1990s, water in 10 percent of Charleston homes tested by the EPA had lead levels at or above 211 parts per billion.
But tainted water wasn’t the only concern here in Charleston. Lead paint exposure was particularly pronounced in the early ’90s as homeowners across the region embarked on renovations after Hurricane Hugo.
Even before Hugo, a Medical University of South Carolina expert estimated in a Post and Courier report that 45 percent of black children in the city and 20 percent of white children may have been poisoned by lead.
A 1990 door-to-door sample suggests lead exposure was even more widespread.
Of 186 Charleston children whose blood was tested by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control that year, nearly 58 percent had lead levels considered harmful.
“There’s ‘tons’ of it,” an environmentalist with the Charleston County Health Department told the newspaper in 1984. “Leaded paint was put on these buildings from Day 1. And some of the paint which was used contained as much as 50 percent lead.”
Today, lead poisoning in Charleston isn’t so much a concern, although DHEC still cautions parents about the threat old paint poses to their children.
“It’s possible there could be lead in your child’s environment,” said Michelle Myer, a pediatric nurse practitioner at DHEC.
Especially for those homes built before 1950, it’s “very likely” that leaded paint was used during construction.
Myer said parents should keep their children, in particular, babies whose bodies easily absorb lead, away from flaking paint chips.
Don’t let children lick or chew doors or windowsills, either, she said.
Thousands of South Carolina children are tested for lead exposure every year. Babies covered by the Medicaid program must be tested at 12 months and 24 months.
Last year, Myer said 269 children in South Carolina were retested because initial results suggested the lead level in their bloodstream was above normal.
Only 31 cases across the state, including six in the Lowcountry, warranted a home visit by DHEC inspectors.
The agency determined one child whose lead levels were elevated had been allowed to chew on a shotgun cartridge and had swallowed several metal pellets.
Another child swallowed a bullet.
Yet another child was found sucking on costume jewelry and another had been snacking on dried grasshoppers. Relatives had sent the grasshoppers in a care package from Mexico. It turns out the bugs had elevated the child’s lead levels.
More than half of those 31 cases were much more mundane, Myer said. “Ingestion of paint chips or lead dust; that’s what we find the most often.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.