Graham was in the kitchen, pouring a cup of coffee. Her husband, Marcelle, opened a large certified envelope just dropped off by the mail carrier.
“The North Carolina Division of Public Health recommends that your well water not be used for drinking and cooking,” the letter said.
“What did you just say?” Graham asked, incredulous.
“The water’s contaminated,” her husband replied.
Graham’s eyes flew to her kitchen faucet. She thought about the coffee she’d just swallowed. The food she’d cooked and sent over to her church. The two children she’d raised in this house.
She dumped the rest of her coffee down the sink.
The ordinary routines of the Graham household had been disrupted by vanadium, which can cause nausea, diarrhea and cramps. In animal studies, vanadium has caused decreased red blood cell counts, elevated blood pressure and neurological effects.
While the element is found in Earth’s crust, it’s also one of several metals found in coal ash—the toxic leftover waste from burning coal.
State officials had discovered vanadium in the Graham’s well water at an estimated concentration of 14 parts per billion, more than 45 times the state screening level of 0.3 ppb—a threshold set by health officials to warn well owners of potential risks.
And the Grahams weren’t alone. Laboratory tests showed 74 wells in the tiny Dukeville community in Salisbury, North Carolina, exceeded state or federal thresholds. Across the state, 424 households received similar do-not-drink notifications, Department of Environmental Quality Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder said in January.
Most letters cited either vanadium or hexavalent chromium, the chemical compound made famous by activist Erin Brockovich, who discovered it had tainted water in Hinkley, California. Hexavalent chromium is carcinogenic when inhaled or swallowed in drinking water, and another metal often found in coal ash.