CONWAY, SC (WMBF) – Thomas Hughes simply wants to know what was in his water. His water company, Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority, initially told him it didn't know what the gel substance left behind after melting ice was, but has since figured out it's silica.
In a statement, the company said "The water meets all state and federal criteria. We're confident that it is silica. With the levels that we have found, it's definitely safe for consumption based upon available information from EPA and FDA."
GSWSA employees collected water from Thomas Hughes' home in Mullins, as well as wells on Front and Cleveland Streets in Mullins, a home on Lake Russell Road that uses MarCo Water, a well in Nichols and a private well in the Mullins area.
They froze the water in batches and melted the ice through a strainer, just like Hughes did. The substance left behind can be seen in nearly every sample. The company didn't find measurable amounts of the gel or crystals in Horry County water.
Simply collecting the samples wasn't enough. The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of South Carolina was brought in to help. In a letter from Professor John Ferry he said after hearing about the story from another professor he hypothesized the material could be "silicate precipitated at low temperature as silica gel."
Ferry says in the letter silicate shows up in water that passes through sand beds. He says silica gel holds water well and typically reveals itself as a "colorless gel that can have a slimy texture."
Once the department knew what it was testing for, the samples could be analyzed. The professor says the analysis supports the idea that "the solids your customers are seeing are probably essentially silica gel."
A test done through Environmental Systems Testing Services came up with very similar results: a little more than 50 mg/L of silica in the water. It's a tiny amount, but finding that number can show just how substantial the silica in the water is. Before doing the tests for silica, GSWSA could only identify about two-thirds of the dissolved solids you drink every day. Adding the silica means the company now knows what nearly 95 percent of the make-up is.
"I was impressed that they did so much in trying to find out what it is," said Hughes after hearing the results, "but it still concerned me that it was something that wasn't targeted as something to look for."
He says he's still not quite ready to make a glass of tea just yet.
"Like I indicated to them," he said, "after looking at this stuff since October, it's kind of hard to get back to drinking it."
Drinking bottled water won't help you avoid silica. GSWSA found it in Fiji Water at nearly double the amount in the well water in Mullins.
A study of drinking water in Washington found the safe silica limit is 1500 mg per day. You'd have to drink more than seven gallons of Hughes' water every single day to get to that level.
OSHA does say breathing in the crystalline silica can be hazardous to construction workers and is something typically encountered during sandblasting and rock drilling.
View the full letter from USC below: