Health officials in Michigan are advising residents in the city of Benton Harbor to rely on bottled water instead of tap water in response to elevated levels of lead in the city’s water supply.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services last week urged residents to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula. Benton Harbor residents can still use unfiltered water for bathing, cleaning, washing hands, dishes and clothes, according to the department.
The department said the recommendation is “out of an abundance of caution to help ensure the health and safety of Benton Harbor city residents.” The city of just under 10,000 people is located on Lake Michigan.
Officials said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting a study to gather data on how effective water filters are in reducing lead in the drinking water supply.
“This acceleration is part of a longer-term effort to eliminate exceedances of the federal lead standard, educate the community on the effects of lead in drinking water, remove lead service lines and increase confidence in filtered water from the tap,” the agency said Wednesday.
“Protecting the health and safety of Benton Harbor residents is a top priority,” Elizabeth Hertel, director of the health agency, said in a statement.
The advisory follows pressure from a coalition of advocates who last month filed an emergency petition with the EPA calling for a federal response to the water issue. The federal agency is now working with the state, county and city to mitigate the problem.
Advocates said Benton Harbor residents for the past three years have been “subjected to levels of lead contamination from their public water system that presents an imminent and substantial endangerment to their health.”
Levels of lead significantly exceeding the federal action level of 15 parts per billion have been reported in the city since at least 2018, according to the petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The city has 5,877 total service lines, 51 percent of which “are known to contain lead, are known to be galvanized lines previously connected to lead, or are of unknown material but likely to contain lead,” according to the petition. Just 2 percent have been confirmed as containing no lead.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has proposed spending $20 million to replace the service line within five years, but advocates have called for an accelerated timeline.
There’s no safe level of lead exposure for children, and exposure to high amounts of the heavy metal can lead to adverse effects such as brain and nervous system damage and learning and behavior problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The state has provided residents more than 23,000 cases of bottled water as of Monday and is providing other free resources such as blood lead testing and services to find and remove lead hazards from resident’s homes.
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