Sunday Read: Lead in Michigan water -- how it gets there, what we can do, are we all in trouble?

More Michigan cities dealing with elevated lead levels in water

Water faucet. (Photo by Nithin PA from Pexels)

It’s been several years since the start of the Flint water crisis, but the issue doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon in Michigan, and perhaps around the U.S.

In 2014, a change in water supply caused major corrosion to supply pipes and lead began leaking into the drinking water supply in Flint, one of the biggest cities in Michigan. Officials denied there was a problem for months, but eventually, residents and activists exposed the troubling water crisis in Flint.

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It took years to replace the pipes in Flint, and even today, while water testing shows safe drinking, some residents are fearful and don’t trust what experts and city officials are telling them.

Nearly eight years later, another Michigan city -- also a majority-Black city -- Benton Harbor, is dealing with a similar crisis with water. State officials are mobilizing quickly to get pipes replaced in the city, but Benton Harbor won’t be the last city to deal with this problem.

In October 2021, Hamtramck, Wayne, and the village of Manchester all reported elevated lead levels in water and local officials offered water filters for residents as a precaution.

Most people don’t think about clean water on a day-to-day basis. We use water constantly, for drinking, cleaning, showering -- and so many other things. How concerned should we be about the increasing lead and aging pipe infrastructure? What’s causing the elevated lead levels? What can you do about it?

Lead, water, pipes and other questions about clean water in Michigan

What’s happening in Benton Harbor?

Benton Harbor, located in Southwest Michigan, is a small, majority-Black city. And lead in their water is not a new finding.

In 2018, high lead levels were detected in the tap water after routine monitoring for lead and copper found more than 10% of samples exceeded limits. Residents were told to flush their water by running it, or to obtain filters.

In 2019, Berrien County started providing filters from MDHHS. The city started replacing lead service lines, which the state says is the best way to reduce lead levels -- removing the sources of lead in the system. But replacing service lines take time. Benton Harbor has also increased testing frequency and sample size.

It’s important to note -- Benton Harbor and Flint are not the same. There was no switch of water supply, or a change in the chemical makeup of the water or pipes -- it’s just old infrastructure and stricter testing. It’s as simple as that.

Related: How much money is needed to combat elevated lead levels in Michigan communities?

How does lead get into our water?

Drinking water is free of lead until it is in contact with lead-containing materials, such as lead service lines. Then as it sits in contact with lead-containing materials the lead begins to be dissolved into the water. The longer that water sits motionless and in contact with lead-containing materials the more lead it can carry.

Most of the lead-containing materials that can be in contact with drinking water are found in the service line (the water line coming from the water main in the street into your home) or within your home in the form of pipes, solder, or brass.

Water house diagram. (Michigan EGLE)

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).

Drinking water faucets manufactured before 2014 were allowed to contain up to 8 percent lead. Homes built before 1988 with copper plumbing may have lead-soldered joints.

How does water testing work?

Your water is either from a public water supply or from a private well. If you get a bill for your water, you are on a public water supply. Public water suppliers are required to test household water for lead. Private wells do not have the same requirements. To learn more about your drinking water, contact:

  • Your public water supplier for their annual water quality report, or Consumer Confidence Report (CCR).
  • Your local health department.

If your public water supplier is not able or willing to sample your home or if you have a private well, you can still get your water tested. Contact a laboratory certified for lead analysis or request information from your local health department to learn more.

You can check the latest water sample testing here for cities across Michigan. And you can learn more about the Lead and Copper Rule here from EGLE.

Are we all on an inevitable path to a water crisis?

The short answer is no.

Implemented in 2018, Michigan has the strictest Lead and Copper Rule water testing the U.S., and that has resulted in more communities testing above the limit. But that doesn’t mean more lead is getting into the water, it just means we’re detecting it more frequently.

Previously, samples would test the first liter of water from a house, water that was likely sitting above the lead service line, therefore, testing would show lower levels. Now, testing requires five liters of water to be taken, with the fifth liter tested. The highest level is reported.

Related: US lowers cutoff for lead poisoning in young kids

In short, testing is stricter than it used to be, so more communities are above the limit. We’ll likely see older communities or older homes test above action levels in the future, but it won’t be widespread.

Additionally, newer communities either don’t have lead service lines, or have replaced the lines already. Water providers, like Great Lakes Water Authority, implement corrosion control in the water system.

GLWA uses orthophosphate, which forms a protective layer on the inside of plumbing materials to prevent lead and other metals from dissolving in the water. Orthophosphate is a substance that is used in the food and beverage industry and is safe for human consumption. GLWA has been using it since 1996.

What can be done to fix the problem?

Well, the biggest thing we can do is replace lead service lines and water fixtures that contain lead. Some of this is already underway, but it’s going to take years to complete.

Michigan Gov. Whitmer signed an executive directive with the goal of replacing 100% of lead service lines in Benton Harbor within the next 18 months.

Michigan has the strictest Lead and Copper testing rule in the country. Under the rule, every community is required to replace 5% of its lead service lines (LSL) every year, meaning 100% replacement in 20 years. However, any community experiencing an action level amount of lead in water is required to replace their LSLs at a rate of 7% per year, meaning 100% completion in just under 15 years.

In October 2020, Whitmer announced the MI Clean Water plan, a $500 million investment to rebuild Michigan’s water infrastructure, including replacing lead service lines and improving wastewater facilities and septic systems.

Related: Infrastructure bill includes money for removing lead from pipes

What can residents do?

Here are some tips Michigan EGLE offered to keep your tap water safe.

Get your water moving. Flushing water pipes can reduce the amount of lead in your water. If you have not used your water for several hours, flush your pipes following your public water supply’s recommended amount of time by doing any of the following: Running faucets, taking a shower, doing laundry, washing dishes, running the hose. You get the point.

Use a point-of-use water filter. A certified lead-reducing filter can reduce lead in drinking water. Filters are made to reduce lead, but do not guarantee that all lead will be removed from drinking water. For more information on choosing a POU water filter, click here.

Clean your faucet aerators. Clean the mesh screen, or aerator, on the end of your faucet at least every six months. If construction is being done to the water system or pipes near your home—including water meter replacement in your home—check and clean your drinking water faucet aerator every month until the work is done. More info with diagrams here.

Consider replacing older plumbing, pipes, and faucets that may add lead to water. Older faucets, fittings, and valves sold before 2014 may contain up to 8 percent lead, even if marked “lead-free.” Look for replacement faucets made in 2014 or later and make sure they are NSF 61 certified or marked to contain 0.25 percent lead or less. Check your plumbing or hire a plumber to know what parts should be replaced to reduce lead in your drinking water.

Do not use hot tap water for drinking or cooking. Lead dissolves more easily into hot water. Do not boil water to remove lead. Lead is not removed by boiling water. Water will evaporate during boiling, leaving the same amount of lead in less water.

What are the health effects of lead?

Most people who have lead in their blood do not look or act sick. However, there is no safe level of lead in the blood. As lead exposure increases, the range and seriousness of health effects increases.

Lower levels of lead in children can result in:

  • Lower IQ scores.
  • Decreased academic achievement.
  • Increased problems with behavior and attention related disorders.
  • Decreased hearing.
  • Decreased kidney function.

Along with the health effects listed above, higher levels of lead in children can also result in:

  • Anemia.
  • Severe stomachache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or constipation.
  • Muscle weakness or soreness.
  • Severe damage to the brain, nervous system, and kidneys.

Lower levels of lead in adults can result in:

  • Increased blood pressure.
  • Decreased kidney function.
  • Decreased cognitive function.
  • Slower reaction times.
  • Altered mood and behavior.

Along with the health effects listed above, higher levels of lead in adults can also result in:

  • Anemia.
  • Muscle weakness or soreness.
  • Severe stomachache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or constipation.
  • Poor sperm and semen quality.
  • Delayed conception.
  • Increased risk of heart disease.

A blood lead test is the only way to know if you and your loved ones have recent or on-going exposures to lead. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services considers 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) or more to be an Elevated Blood Lead Level (or EBLL). Talk to your healthcare provider about getting a blood lead test for you and your loved ones if you’re concerned about a recent or on-going lead exposure.

Related: 🔒 Explainer: How Michigan gets its power, electricity

About the Author:

Ken Haddad has proudly been with WDIV/ClickOnDetroit since 2013. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters, and helps lead the WDIV Insider team. He's a big sports fan and is constantly sipping Lions Kool-Aid.