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Benton Harbor residents asked to flush taps, as more homes test positive for lead in the water

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Benton Harbor city manager Dawin Watson updates residents on elevated lead levels in the city's drinking water.

Health officials are asking people in Benton Harbor to run their water for at least five minutes before using any.  That’s after nearly 50 homes in the city have shown elevated lead levels in the drinking water, out of nearly 300 that have been tested. 

The latest testing results were released at a meeting last night, where city, county and state officials updated residents about what’s being done about the elevated lead levels found in the water.

People in homes with confirmed elevated lead levels can get free filters starting next week. And the city will start a new corrosion control process.

But some people whose homes tested high for lead say they haven’t gotten any help. William Thomas says he received a notice in the fall that his home tested at more than twice the action level for lead in the water.

“And what has been offered to you since you found out about that high number?” I asked

“Nothing," he said.

Thomas says his grandkids sometimes stay with he and his wife at their house. They drank the water.

All he’s heard, he said, was to come to the meeting.

Thomas says his grandkids sometimes stay with him and his wife at their house. They drank the water.

“That was before I got this notice,” he says.

Since he got the notice, the family has been drinking bottled water, which they buy themselves.

The Berrien County Health Department has been sending a nurse out to the nearly 50 homes where elevated levels of lead have been found in the tap water.

Lead can cause serious developmental problems for children. It’s been associated with learning disorders, behavior problems and other health risks.

But Nicki Britten of the health department says, so far, fewer than half of the homes have been reached.

Britten says the good news so far is there’s been no increase in lead showing up in blood tests among the city’s children. But she says not all of the people in homes with lead in the water have had blood tests.

“So at this point, I’m not sure if there is overlap between the people who have sought additional blood lead testings for their children and what their home water result was,” she says.

The Berrien County Health Department is encouraging more parents to get their children’s blood tested.

Meanwhile the city has already begun replacing some of the pipes connected to homes where lead has been found. The city has been using money from a state grant awarded last year. That money won’t be enough to replace all the lead pipes in the city, though. And city manager Darwin Watson says there’s no estimate yet on how much that would cost.

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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