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Benton Harbor finds elevated lead levels in water at eight homes across the city

A graph shows three years of test results for lead in water, with the most recent tests, in 2018, clearly being the most elevated.
Kaye LaFond
Michigan Radio
Water tests taken from 30 homes in Benton Harbor show elevated lead levels in 2018, with the 90th percentile value exceeding the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. The graph shows 2018 compared to the last two testing events, 2012 and 2015.

Benton Harbor is offering to test the water at any home in the city, after initial tests showed elevated levels of lead in eight homes.

The water samples were taken over the summer as part of regular, required testing. The results came back last week.

“The most important thing that we can say is that from our data at this time: we have not seen any increase at all in elevated blood levels in children in Benton Harbor,” says Rick Johansen, who directs the Berrien County Health Department.

He spoke at a press conference today, where both city and county officials talked about the elevated lead levels.

Johansen says parents should still get their children tested for lead, if they haven’t already.

Officials didn’t give the addresses of the homes that tested high for lead in the water. They said the homes were spread across the city.

Out of the 30 homes tested, 25 tested positive for some amount of lead. Eight of those were above the federal action level, which is set at 15 parts per billion. One home in the city registered four times that amount, according to data provided to Michigan Radio from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Benton Harbor has set up a water response hotline for residents at 1-800-815-5485.

City leaders say the people in the eight homes that tested above the federal action level are being offered bottled water, and anyone worried about lead can have their water tested for free.

Benton Harbor city manager Darwin Watson says it’s still not clear whether the lead came from the city’s water pipes, or from pipes under the homes.

“That’s what we’re investigating," Watson says. "We’re trying to find out what the cause of it is. And as we find out and work with the homeowners and the ones who come get testing, we will then disseminate that information as we become more familiar with it.”

Watson says, for now, people in Benton Harbor can still drink the water. But he says people should run the tap for three to five minutes to be safe.

The Berrien County Health Department created a page with more information for Benton Harbor residents concerned about their water. That page can be found here.

The city has also set up a water response hotline at 1-800-815-5485.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.
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