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Benton Harbor extends advisory for lead in the water supply

City Hall in Benton Harbor.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

The city of Benton Harbor says lead continues to be problem in the city water supply.

The city says 12 of 47 homes tested since January of this year were above the federal action level for lead in the water.

Benton Harbor first announced the higher lead levels in the water in October of last year. Since then, the city says it has started using corrosion controls in the water supply, and it’s begun replacing lead service lines. Still, in tests from January through June of 2019, lead continued to show up in the water.

“The City is committed to continuing to take all corrective actions necessary to educate residents, improve the community water supply, and replace lead service lines with the goal of eliminating lead exposure in drinking water for residents,” the city said in an advisory posted online.

[For more information on how to reduce lead exposure, or how to pick up a free filter in Berrien County, go here.]

The Berrien County Health Department says it has handed out nearly 2,000 free water filters to residents.

Overall, there’s been no uptick in the number of children who show elevated levels of lead in their blood. The county says blood tests actually show a decline in the number of kids with elevated blood lead levels.

Out of the homes that tested high for lead in the water, there have been two children who tested for elevated levels of lead in their blood, according to Gillian Conrad, a spokesperson for the Berrien County Health Department.

But, Conrad says, it’s not clear that the two children were exposed to lead through the water supply.

“Lead-based paint continues to be the primary source for lead exposure for children all over Berrien County, including Benton Harbor,” Conrad says.

And Benton Harbor is not alone among Michigan cities and towns that have had high levels of lead in the water.

Last year, Benton Harbor was one of four municipalities in Michigan that tested above the federal action level for lead in the water. Earlier this month, the city of Highland Park said it tested above the federal level.

The federal action level for lead in the water supply is set at 15 parts per billion. According to the federal lead and copper rule, cities can have some test results come in at above that level without triggering a system-wide advisory. The advisory kicks in after a complicated calculation to find the 90th percentile of test results. If the 90th percentile result is above 15 parts per billion, the water supplier is required to issue an advisory and take steps to fix the problem.

Following the Flint Water Crisis, Michigan Radio calculated the 90th percentile for Flint’s tests should have been at 18.8 ppb.

Four of the five municipalities in Michigan that have had lead advisories in the past year were above that level. Hamtramck was at 28 ppb. The village of Lawrence was at 24 ppb. Highland Park was 57 ppb and Benton Harbor’s latest results came in at 27 ppb.

And Gillian Conrad with the Berrien County Health Department says expects even more cities to find high lead results in the coming years.

“So it is definitely going to be a lot of communities that will be going through this process of understanding where lead might be present in their communities,” she says. “And I think it’s something that’s important for all of us to understand for public health.”

Conrad says the county will continue to provide free filters for anyone concerned about lead in their water. Information on where to get the filters, and how to reduce exposure to lead, is available on the health department’s website.

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.
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