Published Saturday, July 21, 2001
high levels found in s.c. residents
Officials react quickly to uranium
Money pledged to extend public water lines; effect of tainted wells unknown
Columbia Bureau

SIMPSONVILLE, S.C. -- High levels of uranium in wells at about 60 homes have public officials scrambling to find money to extend public water lines to the area.

People in a rapidly growing unincorporated area south of Greenville have known since January about the uranium in their drinking water. They got another jolt this week from their lab tests: Of 105 people tested, 94 had abnormally high levels of uranium in their bodies.

Within days, U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint of Greenville had secured a promise from House leaders to include $2 million in next year's budget bill to get public water for the area. Gov. Jim Hodges then recommended the state kick in an additional $500,000. Other elected officials called for immediate federal action and asked for a visit from the nation's top environment officer.

The type of uranium found poses no radiation danger. It occurred naturally, over millions of years, in the ancient granite and metamorphic rocks that underlie the Appalachian foothills. But, like other heavy metals such as lead and mercury, it can cause kidney damage if ingested in large enough doses over a long enough period.

"It's so scary; you don't know what to do, where to turn," said Doris Boyke, 60. "You've got all these so-called experts coming out of the woodwork that are scaring you to death."

Boyke's 41-year-old son Randy Greer, and grandson, T.J., 17, lived for 10 years in a mobile home on a lot she owned in rural southern Greenville County. Earlier this year, a test of the lot's well water yielded what University of South Carolina geology professor Tom Temples says is "the highest concentration of dissolved uranium of anything we can find anywhere in the world."

Greer and his son moved out of the mobile home in February and into Boyke's home several miles away on a county water line. Still, lab tests performed in April showed nearly seven times as much uranium in his body as federal health standards say is acceptable. His son's level was 41/2 times the acceptable level.

Does that mean that Greer, his son, and 92 other people are in danger?

"We really don't know that," said Ken Orloff, the senior toxicologist with the federal government's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta. Scientists don't know what level of uranium in a person's body is likely to make them sick, he said.

Dr. Robert Marino, state epidemiologist with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said animal testing has shown uranium to be less harmful than mercury or lead. "It's not very toxic to the kidneys, but it can be at very high doses," he said.

No one knows what constitutes a high enough dose to be dangerous.

Greer's physician, Dr. Earl Hutchins, said he hasn't found any evidence of kidney damage. "But even if everything is negative now, he'll have to be tested again in six months, just to be sure. So there's an amount of uncertainty in his future."

The uncertainty hasn't discouraged some S.C. elected officials from calling for immediate action.

Attorney General Charlie Condon this week released a letter he'd sent to President Bush asking that the Environment Protection Agency launch a study to find "the danger posed to the health and safety of South Carolina citizens by uranium contamination."

Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler asked that EPA Director Christie Whitman come personally to South Carolina.

And state Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, called for DHEC to investigate where else in South Carolina uranium might be found in drinking water.

In fact, says USC geologist Temples, there is a good chance high concentrations of uranium might be present in wells along the Appalachian front from Alabama to Virginia. Just last month, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that wells in northwestern North Carolina have some of the nation's highest levels of radon, the gas that uranium releases as it decays.

Radon gas that has been released into the air is the nation's second leading cause of lung cancer, behind smoking, the EPA says. The same Greenville County wells with high amounts of uranium also had potentially dangerous levels of radon.

Temples said he and consulting geologist Jim Furr of Simpsonville, who first discovered the high uranium levels, are working with DHEC on a grant proposal to show to "whoever we can find who has the money available."

He said, "We want to go in and try to understand how widespread it is in the Greenville area, and how did it form, so we can use that information to identify other areas just like this one."

Meanwhile, congressman DeMint said Friday he is pushing for a $1.5 million appropriation for an EPA study, in addition to the $2million for water lines.

"We don't know the health risk at this point," he said, "but I know enough that I am concerned for the health of the people who live there. I think it's essential that we get public water to these people immediately, if not sooner."
Henry Eichel: (803) 779-5037;