Environmental lawyer Nick Leonard filters all the water he drinks and cooks with. Under certain conditions, you should too (and it’s not just based on where you live).
DETROIT, Mich.—Nick Leonard lives in a classic, 1930s house in the Morningside neighborhood of Detroit along with his 2-year-old daughter. Though the beauty and charm of old homes offers an aesthetic allure, he pays a price for the age, like all residents of older homes do—higher chances of lead exposure.
One risk he isn’t willing to take is that any toxins will get in his daughter’s water.
“We basically filter all of the water that we use for cooking and drinking,” Leonard, the executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, told The ‘Gander.
Leonard has seen his water do some funky things in the past, like turn orange without explanation, but he has no evidence that his house is serviced by lead pipes or that lead is in the water.
In his line of work, though, he’s learned the lesson that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Leonard was one of the chief signees of a petition sent to the Environmental Protection Agency to assist Benton Harbor in removing lead from its water and underlying pipes. Benton Harbor had lead levels in excess of those in Flint at various points past 2018, and the crisis continues today.
It was that petition that led to a groundswell of media attention and coincided with the governor reducing the project timeline from five years to 18 months to remove all the pipes.
But since the governor stepped into Benton Harbor, other cities and villages in Michigan have reported high levels of lead. Manchester, Wayne, and Hamtramck all reported that in testing, lead levels of water exceeded the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.
“The source of contamination is always there unless you remove it,” Leonard said.
Advocates warn that the problem isn’t likely to slow any time soon. More cities will report high lead levels because they still use lead service pipes, which are required to be removed 17 years from now by Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule. Even more worrisome, however, is that lead can be a problem in any Michigan house, school building, or facility built four decades or more ago, when lead was banned in the use of most products.
Simply, the lead crisis in the state is most likely to come from buildings with lead paint, fixtures, or pipes, even for residents of cities with no reported spikes.
“Lead in rural communities in general is an underreported and undervalued topic,” said Tina Wahl (formerly Tina Reynolds), environmental health program coordinator for the Michigan Environmental Council. “A lot of families and children are being missed in rural communities.”
Every year, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services compiles results for children below the age of 5 who have been tested for lead. In 2020, nearly one out of every 40 kids tested positive for excessive lead levels in their blood.
On the surface, the data doesn’t tell the whole story.
First, “any lead is too much lead,” experts agree.
Second, in 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered the level of lead required for children to surpass the threshold, from five parts to 3.5. That means that more children would certainly qualify under the new level.
The MDHHS database also reports that the fewest number of children were tested in at least a decade, so though the percentage of children who tested above the lead level was down compared to recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic could have led to lower numbers of positive tests (and overall tests).
“Stay-at-home orders, closures, and virtual care limited blood lead testing. The population tested in 2020 is likely different from previous years. Comparing the [elevated blood levels of lead] percentage in 2020 to other years will be difficult,” the MDHHS wrote.
To get a better picture of the number of children with lead poisoning, experts are pushing for universal testing. Every child in the state should be tested for lead, they say, to elucidate a clearer picture of hotspots at cities—like Manchester or Benton Harbor—and specific localities, like a workplace or a school.
Dr. Don Tynes, a doctor at the Benton Harbor Health Center, said anytime he sees a patient who reports abdominal pain or a mental “fog,” he immediately tests for lead. A high number of tests returned above the federal level.
“I think part of our physical for all our children should be to look for lead,” Tynes said in an October interview.
Aside from testing, however, experts recommend that all parents in the meanwhile get filters for their water. Part of proposed legislation that would prevent lead in school drinking fountains and faucets, “Filter First” is the approach endorsed by the Michigan Environmental Council, said Wahl, who has studied lead for 11 years.
If you live in a home built before lead paint was banned in 1978, even if you’re not aware of lead fixtures, you should take the cautious approach, experts said. Wahl said 70% of houses in the state were built before the year 1978.
Well over 70% of homes built before 1960 used lead-based paint.
“Lead is an equal-opportunity toxin,” Wahl said. “That’s farmhouses and that’s older homes, and that’s whether you’re urban or whether you’re rural.”
Contrary to what some believe, lead cannot just be boiled out of water; lead actually is more likely to infiltrate from pipes to supply with hot as opposed to cold water. Instead, lead has to be filtered out specially, and not all filters on the market do take lead out of water.
Lead can seep in from anywhere—pipes, faucets, and service lines, where lead wasn’t banned until 1986—for a spectrum of reasons.
Michigan has introduced several programs to abate lead levels and even help families who have been exposed, in part because they didn’t know their child was at risk. Parents whose children are exposed to lead often feel “embarrassed” or “ashamed,” Wahl said.
The Lead Safe Home Program lets Michigan residents apply for a free lead examination, and they can qualify for the replacement for lead fixtures within their house at a minimal charge.
“When state agencies and local communities work together to protect public health, we can ensure that every Michigander has access to safe, clean drinking water,” Whitmer said in announcing a Michigan lead awareness program in 2019. “My administration continues to work towards real and permanent solutions that ensure every Michigander can bathe their kids and give them a glass of water at the dinner table safely.”