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3 ‘women water warriors’ testing lead ...

3 ‘women water warriors’ testing lead in Detroit drinking water

Detroit's lead samples have so far complied with Michigan's Lead and Copper rule, but activists are concerned about high-risk areas.

Spigot with water dripping. Activists are testing drinking water in Detroit neighborhoods for lead.

Is compliance testing performed by the City of Detroit under Michigan’s Lead and Water Copper rule adequate to the task of uncovering problems in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods? A group of three “women water warriors” have come together to find out. They will be leading an effort to engage Detroit youth in testing drinking water in homes for lead in some of Detroit’s most vulnerable neighborhoods this month, using the state’s protocols and methods. 

Monica Lewis-Patrick, executive director of the water justice organization We the People of Detroit, has joined with Elin Betanzo, principal owner of Safe Water Engineering who was instrumental in Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha testing children in Flint, and Jill Ryan, 20-year executive director of Freshwater Future, to target testing in homes at high risk for lead exposure.

The study will be funded in part through a Facebook Journalism Project grant awarded to Graham Media Group. Planet Detroit and Graham Media will co-report on the study and its results.

“The study is important because we are concerned they are under-testing in the City of Detroit, that we are not getting the rigor of testing we need,” Lewis-Patrick told Planet Detroit. “We don’t want to wait for a crisis. This is our opportunity to challenge the government to remove the pipes and put in a level of oversight to make sure Detroiters are drinking clean and safe drinkable water.”

Their efforts aren’t because the City of Detroit is noncompliant with its testing. In fact, Michigan has the strictest Lead and Copper Rule testing, a goal of 12 parts per billion “action level” by 2025 as opposed to the federal limit of 15 parts per billion, and Detroit is within those parameters. That action level indicates the level of toxicity that needs to be addressed for remediation. 

Bryan Peckinpaugh, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Deputy Public Affairs Director, said the city’s efforts comply with and even exceed Michigan’s rule to put remediation measures in place.

“DWSD has been fully compliant with the Lead and Copper Rule testing protocols that became effective last year,” Peckinpaugh said in a written statement to Planet Detroit. “Our sampling result last year was at 10 parts per billion.”  

That means the 90th percentile of all samples taken equaled 10 ppb for samples taken in 2019. Tests for individual samples may be lower or higher than that number. But while the action level is designed to guide the remediation actions of water utilities, it is not meant to be used as a health indicator. According to the World Health Organization, there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.

Peckinpaugh said the city completed testing this year, is awaiting results and is “confident that the certified results will be close to last year.”

Lead in drinking water can occur in two ways: it can be introduced from the lead service line that brings water from the city’s water main to the home, or it can come from pipes in the home. 

In addition to annual water testing for lead, the city has implemented a Lead Service Line Replacement Program, where DWSD verifies water service line material and, with the home occupant’s permission, replaces lead service lines with a copper pipe at the department’s expense. This only occurs when DWSD is on a street replacing the water main.

Peckinpaugh said that to date, DWSD has replaced nearly 1,000 lead service lines. There are about 80,000 lead service lines throughout Detroit.

“DWSD is at the forefront nationally for testing, corrosion control and lead service line replacement,” Peckinpaugh said.

But Betanzo said the city’s testing may not be not sufficient to find problems in vulnerable neighborhoods.

“They are following through on their requirements, but we’ve got all these overlapping risk factors,” said Betanzo, noting that the 50 samples that DWSD is required to get throughout the city may not include homes with frequent water shut offs and nearby demolitions in neighborhoods that have a high concentration of lead service lines. Betanzo, who is an environmental engineer, said considering these factors is significant because they all increase the risk of lead exposure.

Betanzo explained that the corrosion control chemical used to coat lead pipes wears away easier when water isn’t flowing through pipes. That same preventative chemical can dislodge in neighboring pipes when homes are demolished. When water service is restored after being shut off for non-payment, or pipes are disturbed after a nearby demolition, lead can leach into the water.

The group’s hypothesis is that samples taken in neighborhoods with high risk factors will have higher lead levels when compared to the lead sample results collected by DWSD across the entire city of Detroit for compliance with the Michigan Lead and Copper Rule.  

The group will use the Michigan Lead and Copper Rule compliance sampling procedures to test a Detroit neighborhood with a high number of lead service lines and water shutoffs and a vulnerable population.

If their hypothesis proves correct, the group says the Michigan Lead and Copper Rule may not be sufficient for protecting Detroit’s most vulnerable residents and that targeted, prioritized filter distribution, lead service line removal, and lead remediation is necessary for certain high-risk areas in Detroit.

Lewis-Patrick said the plan, under the guidance of Betanzo, is to train young people, particularly those of color, to be able to identify lead pipes and service lines and take samples. They will canvass homes in high-risk areas and collect and test water samples from homes with either lead service lines or pipes or both. 

Lewis-Patrick said We The People prioritizes working with  Detroit youth so that “Black and brown children see themselves as solutionaries, as having power. Part of that power is data; it’s research and science.”

If the results fall within the ranges reported by the DWSD then “that’s good news,” Lewis-Patrick said. “We are going to use it as a moment to educate. We can always improve the quality of water. There is still a need to galvanize a community around getting rid of lead pipes.”


Rhonda J. Smith, a lifelong Detroiter who resides in the Russell Woods-Sullivan area, where she has served on the neighborhood association board, written for its newsletter, organized activities in its parks and provided residents with tax foreclosure prevention information. With a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in communication, she has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. Her work has appeared in outlets including The Detroit News, Newsday, Chicago Tribune and Wayne County Community College District publications. She was a 2019 Detour Detroit Emerging Voices Fellow.

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