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Benton Harbor lead levels continue to decline, new samples show

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Test results from Benton Harbor drinking water samples are below the state regulator threshold for the second straight sampling period, after three years of exceedances. (Bridge file photo)

Lead levels in samples taken from Benton Harbor’s water supply have again declined, state data released Thursday shows, a sign of progress in the effort to alleviate the city’s water crisis.

Testing from Benton Harbor homes between January and July showed that lead levels in more than 90 percent of water samples were below the 15-parts-per-billion federal regulatory threshold. State water officials called the results a sign that chemicals designed to keep lead from leaching out of the city’s pipes are working as intended.

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“It’s good news,” said Eric Oswald, director of the drinking water and environmental health unit of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. But Oswald noted that it changes nothing about the state’s approach. 

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Residents should still ingest only bottled or filtered water, construction crews will continue racing to remove lead pipes from the city’s water system, and anti-corrosion chemicals will remain in use even after the final lead service line is eliminated.

What to do if you get your water from a lead service line

If you haven’t used your water for several hours (such as first thing in the morning), flush pipes for five minutes to clear stale water that may have absorbed lead while sitting in pipes. You can flush pipes by taking a shower, doing a load of laundry, running the dishwater, or simply letting faucets run.

Consider using a filter to strip lead away before taking a drink. Faucet filters or pitcher filters are both effective, so long as they’re certified to strip away lead and particulates.

Clean faucet aerators every 6 months (or more frequently) to remove lead that may have collected in the aerator’s mesh screen.

Not sure whether your home is serviced by a lead line? You can check this database to find out how common they are in your community, call your water supplier to ask whether a lead line services your home, or follow these tips to see for yourself.

Lead is a toxic metal that can cause severe and permanent damage to children’s developing brains, triggering learning and behavioral problems and other ailments. Though no amount is safe to ingest, state and federal regulations kick in when more than 10 percent of samples taken from a water system exceed 15 parts per billion of lead. That threshold will lower to 12 parts per billion in 2025.

Of 63 residences sampled during Benton Harbor’s latest round of testing, five had more than 15 parts per billion of lead. The highest number was 53 parts per billion. Because that sample was taken from the first liter of water drawn from a faucet, regulators believe it indicates lead contamination from household fixtures rather than city pipes. 

“Removing all the lead service lines is not a panacea for lead issues in a community, because you’ve still got interior plumbing,” Oswald said. 

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has made interior lead inspection and abatement available to all Benton Harbor residents in hopes of eliminating lead fixtures, paint and other in-home hazards.

In a statement, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad called the city’s declining lead readings “a significant step forward for our community as we work to ensure Benton Harbor has access to safe drinking water.”

The city’s water exceeded lead action levels over six straight sampling periods beginning in 2018, before dipping below the regulatory threshold in December. Water managers have been feeding a phosphate mixture into the city’s drinking water to coat service lines and fixtures, aiming to lock lead in-place while construction crews scramble to eliminate the lead-containing lines that feed water into homes. 

That work is now 71 percent done, with 3,183 pipes replaced or inspected to confirm they don’t contain lead. Contracted work crews have 1,303 service lines left to inspect, of which 545 are suspected to contain lead. 

State officials set a goal to complete the work by spring 2023, but Oswald said contractors are on-track to finish sooner.

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Beyond the city’s lead problems, state and federal regulators and Benton Harbor water managers are working to fix a range of issues at the city’s water treatment plant, Oswald said. The plant had fallen into disarray in recent years amid funding and staffing shortages, resulting in an EPA order last fall flagging a host of Safe Drinking Water act violations and deficiencies.

The city’s water crisis triggered a political dustup in Lansing, with politicians trading jabs over who’s to blame and eventually freeing up tens of millions of dollars to replace all of the city’s lead pipes.  

Lawsuits blaming local, state and federal officials for the crisis are wending through the legal system. State regulators are conducting a line-by-line review of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act, and plan to recommend reforms in December aimed at preventing future crises. 

Meanwhile, cities across the state are working to replace their own lead service lines by a state-imposed 2041 deadline. 

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