Water testing shows elevated levels of lead in numerous Metro Detroit cities, but what does it mean?

New testing recently enacted

Help Me Hank: Water results trickling in

DETROIT – Water testing has revealed numerous cities in Metro Detroit have elevated lead levels.

Harper Woods, Inkster, MelvindaleDearborn Heights and parts of Oakland County have released testing results that show some areas have high amounts of lead in the water.

But there's actually a reason we're seeing more of these alerts -- and why we're likely to continue seeing them.

Stronger testing means higher levels

In the wake of the Flint Water Crisis, Michigan enacted the toughest water testing rules in the country.

Samples now have to be taken not only from the first liter drawn from a house with exterior or interior lead plumbing, but also the fifth liter.

Leisl Clark, director of the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, said the testing change will provide “more precision and more insight into what’s actually happening in the homes.”

“We’re expecting to see higher lead results in communities across the state,” she told The Associated Press before a news conference with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state health officials.

A year ago, former Gov. Rick Snyder put in place the nation’s strictest regulations for lead in drinking water in the wake of the man-made emergency in Flint, where the toxic metal leached into taps in 2014 and 2015 due to a lack of corrosion-control treatment following a switch in the water source while the city was under state emergency management.

Underground lead service lines connecting water mains to houses and other buildings will be replaced by 2040 unless a utility can show regulators it will take longer under a broader plan to repair and replace its water infrastructure. The “action level” for lead will drop from 15 parts per billion, the federal limit, to 12 parts per billion in 2025.

The rules also prohibit the partial replacement of lead service pipes except for emergency repairs; require preliminary and final inventories of the lines and other components of a water supply by 2020 and 2025, and ensure samples are taken at the highest-risk sites and with methods designed to more accurately detect lead.

Whitmer, in June, signed a mid-fiscal year spending bill that includes $3 million related to the new regulations. About $1.7 million will cover the cost of water filters for low-income families; $820,000 will go toward educating the public in places with higher lead levels; and $484,000 will fund investigations in homes in those communities.

Why is there lead in our water?

Lead water pipes can sometimes be found in older homes. Drinking water faucets manufactured before 2014 were allowed to contain up to 8 percent lead. This lead can sometimes find its way into our drinking water. Pick the right filter.

Lead found in drinking water is soluble or particulate. Soluble lead is lead that is dissolved in water. Particulate lead is small pieces of lead from lead-containing material. Either type of lead can get into your drinking water when pipes or faucets containing lead begin to break down or dissolve. The amount of lead that can end up in drinking water depends on:

  • Water chemistry (what is in the water).
  • Contact with lead-containing items (if it passes through lead plumbing or fixtures).
  • Water use (how often and in what amount water runs through plumbing and fixtures).
  • Construction or plumbing repairs in the street or home (particulate lead can be released).

Lead can also get into drinking water from:

  • Environmental contamination sites.
  • Natural sources in the environment.

Lead can also be found in well water or other groundwater sources.

Is this similar to what happened in Flint?

No. The possibility of higher lead results in these cases will be because of the new, stricter testing procedure. 

Tips for reducing exposure to lead in water:

  • Run your water to flush out lead-containing water.
  • If you do not have a lead service line, run the water for 30 seconds to two minutes, or until it becomes cold or reaches a steady temperature.
  • If you do have a lead service line, run the water for at least five minutes to flush water from the plumbing of your home and the lead service line.
  • Consider using a filter to reduce lead in drinking water. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recommends that any household with a child or pregnant woman use a certified lead filter to remove lead from their drinking water.
  • Look for filters that are tested and certified to NSF/ANSI Standard 53 for lead reduction.
  • Be sure to maintain and replace the filter device in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions to protect water quality.
  • Use cold, filtered water, for drinking, cooking, or preparing baby formula.
  • Do not boil your water. Boiling will not reduce the amount of lead in water.
  • Clean your faucet aerator to remove trapped debris.

About the Authors:

Ken Haddad is the digital content and audience manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013. He enjoys suffering through Lions games on Sundays in the fall.

Hank Winchester is Local 4’s Consumer Investigative Reporter and the head of WDIV’s “Help Me Hank” Consumer Unit. Hank works to solve consumer complaints, reveal important recalls and track down thieves who have ripped off people in our community.