Opinion | Michigan should revise lead and copper rule to improve public health

Elin Betanzo is a former environmental engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a water quality engineer and founder of Safe Water Engineering LLC.

Eric Rothstein served on the Flint Water Advisory Task Force that initially investigated the Flint Water Crisis, and is a utility finance expert and Principal of the Galardi Rothstein Group, LLC.

The Michigan Lead and Copper Rule under review by the Michigan Joint Committee on Administrative Rules is an appropriate response to the lead in water crises in Flint and other cities across the country.

During a lead crisis in Washington, D.C. in 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) needed substantial revisions to protect public health. EPA recently delayed the revision to the federal LCR again, this time until August 2019. Michigan is taking this important step toward improving drinking water safety after many years of federal inaction. Any time lead is in contact with drinking water, there is a risk of lead exposure. The events in Washington, DC, and Flint demonstrate the consequences of ignoring lead sources in our plumbing.

Related: Michigan lawmakers may require schools to test water for lead
Related: Read Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposal to remove lead water pipes in Michigan
Even after Flint, lead-free water lines may be a pipe dream in Michigan

Lead service lines are the most concentrated lead source in U.S. homes and they directly affect drinking water, a substance necessary for human survival. Despite this fact, the LCR and our health surveillance systems do not collect the data necessary to identify water as a source of lead exposure.

Our lead poisoning surveillance system was designed to detect children who have been exposed to lead paint. We test toddlers at ages 1-2 for lead in their blood because that is when they put everything in their mouths, including paint chips.  

Unsurprisingly, this system for detecting exposure to lead paint identifies children exposed to lead paint but does not identify the contribution of lead exposure from drinking water. Further, LCR water samples measure corrosion control effectiveness, not exposure to lead in water. This lack of appropriate data results in misplaced conclusions that drinking water is not contributing to lead exposure.

Continuing to debate sources of lead will not prevent lead exposure. It merely prolongs the process. Once lead is in the body the damage is done, and there is no threshold below which lead exposure is without harm. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that 20 percent and another study in 2018 found up to 40 percent of a child’s lead exposure can come from drinking water depending on the circumstances.

We will not solve the lead exposure problem by calling it a lead paint problem and only remediating the paint. Pre-1978 homes that are the focus for lead paint exposure are also the homes most likely to have lead service lines, lead solder, and lead in plumbing fixtures and fittings. Everyone who lives in a home that has lead paint, lead service lines, and lead in plumbing will drink the water the entire time they live there. We need do a better job of managing the risks of lead exposure from water – through education, point-of-use filtration, improved corrosion control, and ultimately full lead service line removal.

It is time to begin the long, hard process of replacing lead service lines as cost effectively as possible. This means removing entire lead service lines, the portions on both public and private property, at the same time. It is time to locate all the lead service lines and notify residents of the risk of lead exposure – from service lines and onsite plumbing. The new Michigan LCR is a necessary tool to start reducing the risk of lead exposure from our drinking water.

Removing lead service lines will cost money but spending to lower the risks of lead exposure and protect public health is a worthy investment. This investment must begin and proceed in reasonable and sustainable increments if we are to adequately protect our communities. For those concerned that the costs of the revised LCR are insurmountable or inappropriate, context is relevant. As a country, we spend billions of dollars to control wastewater system overflows. While these expenditures have imposed financial burdens, they are being financed – and progressive utilities do so while addressing low-income affordability concerns. To suggest that we can’t afford to minimize risks of lead exposure in water we ingest (rather than flush) is to misplace our priorities.  There are profound costs of delayed and partial inaction.

We drink water our entire lives. Today, we do so with the potential for exposure to lead.  Let’s work to leave a different legacy for our children – a lead-free legacy.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Than Nguyen
Thu, 06/07/2018 - 6:04pm

This is a very important issue for our communities. Maintaining the operating integrity of water system and preventing corrosion in pipes and fixtures can help prevent serious health hazards as well as reduce the high cost to repair or replace down the road.
Than Nguyen

Erwin Haas
Fri, 06/08/2018 - 11:46am

"there is no threshold below which lead exposure is without harm"


Every blood test for lead has some positive level, some very small. We also find selenium, iron, mg, mn, etc in blood samples. All of the latter are vital minerals, they do something to make mammalian metabolism possible. These were discovered when communities were found who had low or absent levels of these minerals.

We have no data that shows that lead is not an essential mineral since we cannot show any bane health effects of having zero lead level in blood. We have not found any since everyone has some lead which is not an uncommon mineral in the environment.

The zero bound crowd illustrated by this article roils up the poor simple folks who think that anyone who can construct a sentence full of nonsense is a scientist. Real scientists wallow in uncertainties and are suspicious of revealed truths about a "need for no blood levels for lead." Bridgemi should not encourage this kind of rabble rousing.

Fri, 06/15/2018 - 2:04pm

I'm a bit confused by this article. The little community of Gay, Keweenaw County, which has a water system serving about 55 houses, is forced to test for copper monthly at the source and in homes. Although the water is within range at the source, it's composition can exacerbate copper leaching from the pipes inside people's houses. The little water plant continues to add a chemical to reduce this problem, which only occurs in one of the houses tested. Therefore, cost of water has risen to cover a problem in one house, which is caused by the house plumbing, which the owner could resolve. The state is relentless in requirements for testing and retesting, and requiring the addition of a chemical to the entire system to reduce the copper in one house. How soon until we find that adding the chemical where unnecessary impacts people's health?

So, where is this lack of concern for lead and copper in water supplies? Are little water systems being targeted, because they are easily intimidated, and large ones getting a pass because their problems are too great? We have two children in one household, which is not affected by high copper concentrations. The one house in question has no children, and copper has little effect on us old codgers. I agree that there is no safe lead level for children, but why is a little system getting scrutinized so heavily for copper, while the cities with lots of children get a pass?