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Reporter’s Notebook: “Should I be worried about lead in my tap water?”

May 29, 2018

Earlier this year I collected samples for lead in water at a home in Romulus that city officials said was vacant.
Credit Lara Moehlman / Michigan Radio

After reporting on the Flint water crisis, there’s one question people have asked me over and over: Should I be worried about lead in my tap water?

We can look at the numbers cities provide in annual reports. But those numbers don’t always tell the whole story.

Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio

So when people asked me that question I’d say – probably not. Sometimes that answer came with a sideways look that begged the question, “What do you mean, probably?”

Given how bad state officials messed up in Flint, it wasn’t an answer I could give with confidence.

I wondered, are there other Michigan cities with potential lead in water issues? And are those cities taking any problems seriously post-Flint?

So I spent more than a year working to get more concrete answers for the public. Michigan Radio spent nearly $2,000 to obtain public water sampling records from the largest municipal water systems in the state and each city that buys Detroit water via the Great Lakes Water Authority.

You can find all of the stories in the series that came out of this question here.

Here are my two biggest takeaways I use to answer that question now:

There’s too little data to make sweeping conclusions.

Plenty of cities I talked to were adamant they have no lead in water problems. But it’s hard to convey on the radio just how little data many cities have to back that statement up.

For starters, most Michigan cities don’t test for lead in water every year. Not even every other year. Most cities test for lead in water once every three years. So if you’re looking at a lead level for your town, the data could be old. Problems could go unnoticed for years, should they arise.

Secondly, cities usually only have to do these routine tests at 50 homes - at the most. Smaller cities test fewer.

Let’s look at Detroit as an example.

 

Detroit has roughly 200,000 occupied homes. The city estimates it has more than 100,000 homes hooked up to the water main via lead pipes. But in order to say lead levels are safe in the entire city, Detroit only has to test water at 50 homes.

Detroit is the most under-sampled Michigan city by population. But it’s not a major outlier. Ypsilanti, Dearborn, Canton, Sterling Heights, Livonia, and many other bigger Detroit suburbs typically test no more than 20 homes each.

The way the three year rotation works, many Michigan cities completed their lead water testing last summer. Michigan Radio got the records, analyzed the data, and reached out to cities that stood out.

Here’s a map with the latest data from the state’s larger municipal water systems and everyone who buys water from Great Lakes Water Authority. Click on the individual cities for more data.

There are things you can do.

You can’t control how well your city treats its water or the type of pipe that was installed decades ago. The public comment period for the state’s new rules about lead in tap water is over.

But there are things people can do to protect their families from exposure. No amount of lead in water is “safe” for anyone. But I’d especially suggest taking these steps if you’ve got a pregnant woman in the house or a formula fed infant.

Find out if your home is connected through a lead water pipe.

Flint got a lot of flak for not knowing how many lead lines it had or where they were. But I found many older Michigan cities (where lead lines are more common) have shoddy records.

Instead, it might be better to at least try figuring out what kind of pipe is coming into your home. NPR made a great app for that or you can find a more traditional explainer post here.

Lead pipes present the highest risk of exposure in water, but lead solder and many newer plumbing fixtures can also leach lead into tap water.

There are two things you can do for that.

The first and easiest is to flush the water after it’s been sitting there a while. Studies show flushing your water generally lowers the level of lead in water.

So when I make my morning coffee, I run the cold water on high while I get the filter and coffee grounds in there. I use the fresh water that hasn’t been sitting in my home’s pipes all night to make my coffee and to put in my kids’ sippy cups. 

The second thing, and maybe the best for your peace of mind, is to use a water filter.

NSF certifies water filters to remove lead for refrigerators, faucets, and those stand-alone pitcher filters. Check the labels before you buy.

After more than a year of study and reporting I can say this: The quality of water, and whether or not you should worry about lead, varies widely from city to city and house to house. It’s not a great answer. But it’s the truth.

We found several houses that had really high lead levels in cities that otherwise can claim there is no lead issue in their water. But if that’s your house, I cannot say confidently you have nothing to worry about.

At our office in Ann Arbor, we’ve got one of those large water coolers we pay the Absopure guy to keep full. Even with that bottled water option, I still feel good filling my water glass from the tap. I don’t think you should have to hesitate to either.