Flint is the most notable example. But we might soon find out about many more.
Aside from a few infamous cases—like Flint, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.—public officials across the United States have continually downplayed the pervasiveness of lead contamination in water. But if preliminary evidence holds up, a new Michigan rule for testing lead will likely show just how widespread the problem is.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District had their own crisis in 2018 when testing showed that 57 of 86 schools had lead levels above the federal action threshold of 15 ppb. Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning, which can permanently hinder nervous system and cognitive development.
“We are a baby Flint—or a Flint coming,” Aliya Moore, a Detroit artist and parent, told the New York Times in an article about the contamination at Detroit public schools.
Despite being places of daily congregation for children, the demographic most vulnerable to the effects of lead, schools are not required to test water quality under federal regulations. In 2016, testing by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services found that Detroit children under the age of six had a higher percentage of elevated levels of lead in their blood (9 percent) than any Michigan county. Health officials continually state that there is no safe level of lead exposure.
Testing itself isn’t precise either. The amount of lead in the blood stream has a half-life of 30 days, which doesn’t account for long-term exposure. The amount of lead in water can vary greatly depending on whether it’s been recently flushed, how much corrosion control is in place to prevent lead from dissolving in water, the age of the pipes, whether the pipes have been recently disturbed, and even the temperature of the water.
At Detroit’s public schools, the likely culprit was old, corroding plumbing, which the cash-strapped district hadn’t been able to adequately update over the years. Compounding the problem, schools go largely unused on weekends, holidays, and for the entire summer, giving lead time to leach into the water. Unless adequately flushed, students then drink it.
Replacing all the plumbing would have been cost prohibitive, so instead the district installed hydration stations with water filters at every district school before the start of the 2019 school year.
The situation at Detroit’s public schools illustrates many of the challenges to effectively testing and treating lead-contaminated water. It all starts with the Lead and Copper Rule, a federal regulation established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1991. The problems with the rule are myriad: experts say the threshold level is too high, the testing method isn’t accurate, and little legal remediation is required by utilities once problems are found.
“It’s a terribly flawed scheme,” says Oday Salim, an attorney at the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office. “It basically accepts that some people will have a decent amount of lead in their water.”
The federal Lead and Copper Rule, however, does allow state governments to enact their own stricter regulations. “The federal government sets the floor. States can have the ceiling as high as they like,” Salim says. “That’s what Michigan did.”
Passed in 2018 in response to the crisis in Flint, Michigan’s law enhances the federal regulations in many meaningful ways. Every water system in the state had to take an inventory of its plumbing and determine the material composition of its water mains and service lines. The threshold level—the amount of lead in water at which municipalities must take active measures—will reduce from 15 to 12 parts per billion (ppb) in 2025. The response to exceeding the threshold level is more aggressive, and includes more frequent testing, notifying customers, and optimizing corrosion control.
And testing itself was redesigned to more accurately reflect lead levels. Starting last year, tests are done annually instead of every three years. Homes selected for testing have to come from a pool of those likely to have lead pipes. And, crucially, the first and fifth liter of water from the tap must be tested.
The federal level only requires systems to test the first liter of water, which shows how much lead is coming from the home’s internal plumbing. Testing the fifth liter gives a better picture of how much lead is coming from the service line, the connector pipe between the home and mainline.
Lead pipes were banned in 1986, but were phased out in Detroit in the 1940s. Lead pipes were legal for use for private plumbing work through 1986, so still possible that more recent homes in Detroit have lead plumbing.
“Lead pipes that deliver from the main to the house are the single largest source of lead in drinking water,” says Elin Betanzo, a former staffer at the EPA and founder of the consulting firm Safe Water Engineering LLC. “Anytime water comes in contact with lead, some of it can leach into water, even when using corrosion control treatment.”
Initial results from the first year of Michigan’s new testing scheme reveal the danger of lead service lines. An analysis by Planet Detroit found that the average amount of lead from taps at the 90th percentile were nearly twice as high in 2019 as 2018. More telling, they were nearly five times as high in municipalities that tested for the fifth liter of water (10 ppb) compared to those that only tested the first liter (2 ppb) — a statistically significant difference.
In other words, a substantial amount of previously undetected lead has been leaching into residents’ water through service lines, probably for decades. Of the 17 municipalities above the action threshold level in Southeast Michigan for 2019, only one didn’t test the fifth liter. Cities on that list include Hamtramck (15 ppb), Ferndale (15 ppb), Dearborn Heights (17 ppb), Birmingham (17 ppb), Royal Oak (23 ppb), Highland Park (57 ppb), and Melvindale (370 ppb).
Detroit, at 10 ppb, was below the threshold level, although the city estimated that out of approximately 311,000 service lines, 77,197 are made of lead.
Last year, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) announced that a $500 million capital improvement program was underway to replace over 50 miles of water main and sewer collection pipes. Along the way, the department is replacing any lead service lines it encounters.
But that approach ultimately may not account for much. According to its annual report, DWSD replaced 329 lead service lines in 2019—only 0.4 percent.
“The goal is to be able to change [lead service lines], but there’s no funding attached to it,” says Palencia Mobley, deputy director and chief engineer at the DWSD, pointing out that DWSD still has to deliver water to customers, even if it’s through lead pipes. “Pipes don’t magically go away and stop servicing water—those pipes still have to deliver.”
Mobley estimates that replacing all the lead service lines in the city would require at least another $500 million. The expense of upgrading water infrastructure is the main reason it’s been deferred for so long in cities around the country. But Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule requires water systems in the state to replace all their lead service lines by 2041.
Paying for all that work will strain city budgets, including Detroit’s—Betanzo says the city has already asked for an extension to replace its service lines. A significant percentage of DWSD’s current capital improvement plan is being paid for by the $50 million annual lease of its water supply and treatment facilities by the Great Lakes Water Authority, the regional water authority formed after Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has already forced the city to cut $200 million from its budget and furlough employees. “It’s still too early to tell yet if [the pandemic] will affect our ability to maintain our current pace,” Mobley says of the city’s water system upgrades.
In the meantime, the city is urging all residents who haven’t had their service line replaced to adequately flush their water before each use.
This year will be the first that Michigan’s Lead and Copper Rule is fully implemented. Now that all water systems have taken an inventory of their plumbing, they’ll be sampling the most vulnerable homes and testing for the fifth liter, if they have lead service lines.
If Detroit or any other municipality has to take action because the stricter rules in place for 2020 put them over the threshold, how will they be able to pay for it?
“Funding is going to be the biggest long-term challenge,” Betanzo says. “All these new requirements are great, but cities need funding to follow. Hopefully, now that we have better data, it will be easier to make the case for funding. Previously, when sampling didn’t reflect the risk, it was harder to make the case that funding was necessary.”
An amendment to a national infrastructure bill co-sponsored by Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib would provide $22.5 billion for lead plumbing replacement in low-income communities. It recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives, though it’s unlikely to pass the Senate.
The latest round of lead testing is underway in Michigan right now for municipalities that were over the action threshold in 2019. Those results, which are expected to be released in the next month, will say a lot about how widespread of a problem lead is in Michigan, and how much investment is needed to fix it.
Do you have a question about lead and water in metro Detroit? Text planet313 to 73224 or send us a question.