The Aiken Chronicles

Perpetual Sunshine: Drinking Radium Water in Aiken, SC

Posted in Uncategorized by canarypapers on July 24, 2010

Here’s an installment for the small world archives. If you do a web search for radium + water + Aiken, SC, you’ll find two interesting news articles among the top results. One is an article published nearly 80 years ago in Time magazine. The other is from today’s Aiken Standard newspaper. The Time magazine article is from 1932 and details the story of a former Aiken resident, Eben MacBurney Byers, who fell prey to the short-lived craze during the earlier part of the 20th century of drinking radium water as a tonic and cure-all for everything from blackheads and pimples, to gout and arthritis. Seen as a wonder element, radium was also incorporated into everything from ice cream to toothpaste to condoms. In Mr. Byers’ case, the ailment was a sore arm from a sports injury, and the cure was a product called Radithor,  promoted as “Perpetual Sunshine,” ostensibly due to the propensity of radium to glow in the dark. Byers reportedly drank hundreds of doses of the radium tonic and was so impressed that he sent cases of Radithor to friends and even fed it to his horses. After 3-1/2 years of this, he developed severe headaches and jaw pain, oblivious to the cause. A savvy doctor, seeing his x-rays, recognized the culprit: radium poisoning. Over the next 18 months, Byers’ teeth began falling out and he developed holes in his skull. In fact, all of his bones began deteriorating until, toward the end, he had to have most of his lower and upper jaws surgically removed. By the time of his death, what remained of his jaw was necrotic, and his brain was abscessed. Autopsy revealed that his bone tissue contained 36 micrograms of radium. The fatal dose is 10 micrograms.

Flashing Forward

The Byers’ story is a macabre one, to be sure, which would easily capture the morbid interest of folk interested in such things. But to Aikenites who do the above-mentioned internet search (radium + water + Aiken, SC), the Byers’ story may take on personal meaning, when they read that second news article of interest, which arrived via a headline in today’s Aiken Standard: City works to decrease radium levels in area water. To be precise, according to the article:

The standard acceptable level of the naturally occurring substance is 5 pCi/L. The average level of radium over the last year in the affected area was 5.8 pCi/L.

While the article was quick to assure us that “there’s no immediate health risk,” posed by this level, it did little to assure us that our city officials are quick to notify us when contaminants in our drinking water exceed the legal limit for safety — which, in the case of radium is 5 pCi/L. This level is not, as the article states, “the standard acceptable level,” but is, in fact, the maximum legal limit for “safety,” even as the EPA acknowledges that — like lead contamination — there is no level of exposure to radiation that is considered, “safe.” In other words: What the Aiken Standard article neglected to make clear — and should have made clear, in the interest of full disclosure — is that when the level of radium in our drinking water rose above 5 pCi/L, it officially exceeded the maximum limit for safety. According to the article, city officials only learned about this last week. But according to the notice that the city mass-mailed and which was received yesterday by many area residents, the city may have been aware of this level for even longer. Which makes perfect sense, since the radium levels in the City of Aiken’s 2008 Annual Drinking Water Quality Report listed the combined level of radium 226 and 228 at 8.6 pCi/L, and listed the gross alpha radiation at 15.4 pCi/L — both levels exceeding the legal limit for safety. Digging a little deeper (which I’ll go into in a moment), it appears they may have known since 2004. Here, a little perspective is in order. We’re talking between 5 and 6 pCi/L (picocuries per liter), which is miniscule compared to the dose Mr. Byers imbibed, which was estimated at something like 6 microcuries in 1.5 ounces of water every day for over three years. For comparison, a picocurie is 1-trillionth of a curie, whereas a microcurie is 1-millionth of a curie. In other words, there are 1 million picocuries in 1 microcurie. I think. But even if my math is off, my point is intact. There’s no comparison between Radithor and the level of radiation in Aiken’s drinking water. I’m not running around like Henny Penny, crying, “The sky is falling!” But I would like to know how many picocuries of radium per liter are currently in our drinking water. Since the level has, in recent times, apparently exceeded the legal limit, it seems only right that we should be kept abreast of the most current information. The City of Aiken has posted the 2007 and 2008 water quality reports, but what about 2009 and the preliminary levels for 2010? We don’t know, and apparently we don’t need to know, because according to the Aiken Standard article, attorney Richard Pearce, who serves as the City Manager, has our backs. “It is not an emergency nor an immediate risk,” he said. “If that changes, we will keep everyone informed.” Speaking for myself — as someone who, if given a choice, wouldn’t freely imbibe in  5.8 pCi/L of this “naturally occurring” radium in my daily drinking water — I would have appreciated an immediate heads-up, so that I might avail myself of alternative water sources. Just because it’s not officially an emergency or an immediate risk doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to take at least a few precautions to limit my exposure, in the interest of reducing potential long-term risks.

Where Did the Stuff Come From, Anyway?

The question naturally arises, where did the radium come from? And why have the levels risen in recent years? Attorney Pearce surmised that the source of the radium might be from a nearby kaolin bed, and he could very well be right, as radium is indeed a naturally occurring element. But elevated levels of alpha radiation in the water can also be caused by mining activities and certain industrial waste. Pearce didn’t surmise on either of the latter scenarios, nor did he offer a scientific opinion as to what might cause this ancient kaolin bed, which has been mined throughout Aiken County for nearly two centuries, to begin emitting radium into the drinking water over the past several years. He did offer, however, that “If a person drank a half gallon of water with a 5.8 pCi/L every day for 70 years, that could be dangerous,” which is straight off the EPA site’s info on the risks of radium in drinking water. Okay. So we know that drinking Radithor for 3-1/2 years can kill you, and we’ve been told that drinking 2 liters of Aiken water, at the current radium levels, for 70 years could be dangerous. But what about all the shades of gray in-between? Pearce’s expertise on the effects of radium water on human health is understandably limited, even if his limited knowledge on the history of radium levels in Aiken’s drinking water is not so understandable. According the article, Pearce indicated that he was “not aware of any  elevated radium levels found in the water in recent years.” My curiosity is always piqued when I hear an official declare a limited recall or awareness of the most basic facts. So I did a little digging and found that Aiken’s water supply has been elevated and skirting the edge of that “legal limit” for years — ever since 2004, when the levels of Radium 226 at Shiloh Springs, on Aiken’s northside (the same water source that is now reportedly testing at 5.8 pCi/L) tested at levels between 4 and 6 pCi/L. According to the Environmental Working Group website, (and as published in the New York Times series on Toxic Waters), while the City of Aiken’s radium levels in 2004 did not exceed the EPA’s “legal limit,” they did exceed the EPA’s “health limit” for all three radiation sources: radium 226, radium 228 and gross alpha radiation. Information for the years after 2004 were not given because, according to the Environmental Working Group website, “The South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control did not respond to requests for more recent test data.”

Monkey Math? Or a Matter of Degrees?

Comparing the information from the Environmental Working Group site and the City of Aiken’s Annual Drinking Water Quality Reports, it’s difficult to reconcile the numbers and methods. For instance, the City’s 2007 report includes a breakdown of the levels of Radium 226 and Radium 228, and also includes individual readings from the various local water sources (e.g. Shiloh Springs, Shaws Creek and Town Creek), whereas the City’s 2008 report offers no breakdown on water sources, nor on the specific types of radium. It simply clumps it all together, listing the Radium 226 + Radium 228 at 8.6 pCi/L, and giving the total gross alpha levels at 15.4. Again, both of these numbers exceed the legal limits, or Maximum Containment Levels (MCLs), which are set at 5 pCi/L and 15 pCi/L, respectively. As if this weren’t confusing enough, the radium levels in the 2008 report are, in fact, stated as 2004 levels, not 2008, whereas the gross alpha levels are from 2008. How is this to be interpreted by the average citizen who doesn’t have the necessary degrees to decipher water quality reports? [As an aside, while we’re not talking about lead in drinking water, I’ll throw this into the fray: the lead levels in the 2007 report (which are actually from 2005) were 7.7 parts per billion, whereas the lead levels in the 2008 report were 0.0 parts per billion. What are we to make of these dates and numbers? What does it mean in layman’s terms?] While the folk on the southside may have breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing that the radiation contamination did not effect them, personally, but only affected those folk on the northside, these south-siders would do well to take a closer look at the City’s 2007 report. Granted, the numbers in this 2007 report were paradoxically old numbers, from 2004, but they give cause for concern, as the gross alpha levels of radiation at the Town Creek Well measured 7 pCi/L, just under Shiloh Spring’s level of 9 pCi/L during that year. Concerned? No need because, according to the EPA, radium exposure at 5 pCi/L for a year is the equivalent of getting a chest x-ray every year. But should you be concerned, the notices from the City of Aiken, which residents received in the mail this week, advise that anyone with a specific health concern consult a doctor. I can just hear that conversation.

Patient: Doc, I’m worried about this business with the radium in our drinking water.

Doctor: Not to worry. It’s like getting a chest x-ray. You have a bigger chance of being killed by a tornado.

Patient: Yeah, but over the course of, say, five years, that could be 5 chest x-rays from my drinking water + several more from the radon in my basement + a couple more for radiation in our food and the environment + another chest x-ray for round trip flights to visit my sister in California + the chest x-ray equivalents I get from a series of dental x-rays + any actual chest x-rays I might get. This could add up to 10 or 15 chest x-rays over the course of 5 years. From what I read, these exposures are cumulative, adding up as some of the radiation from each exposure is stored in the body.

Doctor: Whoa! You are worried. Listen, there’s a new drug on the market, tailor-made for people in your situation. Have you ever taken an anti-depressant? No? I’ll write you a prescription.

Receptionist: That’ll be $80.

The Bottom Line

If the smattering of numbers above make your drowsy from tedium and/or confusion, you are not alone. In the absence of an alternative explanation for these odd numbers and discrepancies, I would propose that either the City of Aiken and/or DHEC are either awfully sloppy, or they are playing a shell game — their dates and numbers arranged in such a way as to mislead. Bottom line: These who compile these reports should aspire to do more than meet the minimum requirements to satisfy federal or state regulations. These reports should, as well, be designed to inform the average citizen (who is not a nuclear physicist, but may only hold a high school diploma), as to the integrity of their drinking water.

The Art of Selling Perpetual Sunshine

Whatever the reasons for these convoluted documents, the City of Aiken owes its citizenry more than a few rote statements in the local paper and a mass-mailing of thin reassurances. The City of Aiken owes us more than an off-the-cuff surmise from the City Manager as to the source(s) of this radium. The City of Aiken and its partners at DHEC need to take a close look at the history of these levels and to take a real effort at determining the source(s). They need to be asking questions and sharing the answers to these questions with the general public. After personally speaking with a good many of the people who received their notices in yesterday’s mail, I can attest to the fact that there are a lot of unanswered questions laying about. These citizens do not need or want platitudes and rote reassurances, but a comprehensive, transparent delivery of the facts. In a word: science. I, for one, would like to think that we common folk are not the only ones hankering for some good old fashioned scientific inquiry. Here are a few questions that have been posed: Could the radium levels at the Town Creek well-site be caused by Three Rivers Solid Waste Dump site? Or from SRS? Or from development in the area? And could the contamination on the northside be due to the hazardous waste site at the former Feldspar Products, Inc. (located near the south fork of the Edisto and — as the crow flies — about 1/2 mile from Shaw’s Creek, 1/2 mile from the city’s Mason Branch water reservoir, and about 3 miles uphill from the Shiloh Springs water plant)? And what, exactly, was the nature of the contamination from this company? What did the owners leave behind when they abandoned this site? What chemicals, raw materials, process(es) and by-products were involved in their manufacturing of aluminum sulfate? E-waste? Bauxite? Dross? Sulfuric acid? Heavy metals? Was the site tested for radium? And while we’re talking about Feldspar Products, was this Superfund cleanup site ever actually cleaned up? Or was it simply abandoned, their trail of hazardous wastes disappeared into a twist of red tape? And why in the world did DHEC even issue permits for Feldspar Products to open this type of manufacturing facility in such a sensitive watershed area? And what of the various other digging and land-moving projects in that same neck of the woods? Or could it be that the heavy land disruptions from the Weldon Wyatt developments in seemingly faraway Vaucluse and the surrounding lands contributed to the rise in radium levels on the north side? The questions, you see, get pretty far-flung. On a related note, how about some more info on this engineering firm that the City of Aiken is “working with” to reduce the radium levels in the drinking water? What are they going to do? And when? And while you’re at it, what would it take to get a rush order on the 2009 or 2010 samples and give us a clue as to how much radium we’ve really been drinking over the past 2 years? Hey, I’m no scientist, but I’ve got some questions and concerns of my own. And, in the absence of real science from the folk in charge of such things, my list of questions is long and could get even longer. Granted, the radiation levels in our local drinking water pale in comparison to the levels ingested 80 years ago by Eben MacBurney Byers. But at least Mr. Byers knew how much radium he was drinking each day. We don’t. And for those of us who prefer a different sort of enlightenment, rather than being left in the dark regarding the present-day levels of radiation in our drinking water, it’d be nice to know that our local officials — being duly immersed in their jobs to promote Aiken as a City of Character and perpetual sunshine — aren’t selling us a fake bill of goods.