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Searching for lead in Detroit's water lines

Oct 20, 2016

The hunt is on for lead pipes in Detroit.

Flint officials still don’t know where all the city’s lead service lines are. That’s because the building records were in horrible shape.

Back in April, we reported that Flint wasn’t alone. We found at least a dozen other cities in Michigan with the same problem – their records also don’t show how many lead water pipes they have or where they are.

In Detroit, workers are trying to verify the old records.

Verifying records, one basement trip at a time

After the news broke about Flint, Elaine Houston says she started buying bottled water to drink sometimes. She lives in Detroit. Not Flint.

But she knew the home with the brick fireplace she fell in love with was almost 80 years old, and she worried her water might have lead in it too.

So she was excited to get a pamphlet at a town hall meeting that said the city of Detroit was testing water for lead.

And last week, the city sent Michael Deangelo Calliway and Terry Craig, water department employees, to her house to figure out if she had a lead service line.

Houston led Calliway downstairs into the basement, where he poked the water pipe coming out of the basement floor with a magnet. Scraped at it a little with his thumbnail. Knocked on it with his flashlight.

“This is probably copper,” he declares. “Because lead, it’s so flexible that if this was lead I could actually bend it. It’s definitely not lead. I’m 100% sure that’s not lead," Calliway said.

It’s good news for Houston and it’s a good data point for the city of Detroit.

Detroit is looking for lead lines, testing water early

Elin Betanzo is a water quality expert with the Northeast-Midwest Institute. She's an expert on lead in water. Detroit hired her as a consultant back in June.

“We estimate service line material based on the year the home first got water service," Betanzo said.

Lead was more commonly used in plumbing before the health hazards were widely known. Older homes are therefore more likely to have lead lines.

Detroit estimates there are roughly 100,000 lead service lines left in the ground. But that number is just a guess based on the age of the housing stock in Detroit.

DWSD's Terry Craig and Detroit homeowner Elaine Houston talk about the water service line coming into her house.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Betanzo says the assumption is – if a home was built before 1945, it has a lead pipe. But she hasn’t found documentation to back that up yet. So how far off is the assumption?

"The majority of plumbing cards don’t indicate material. I mean we’ve got records, they just don’t indicate material. So interpret that however you want," she said.

Betanzo has dug through the city’s archives, and found different copies of the plumbing code. She discovered that private contractors were allowed to install lead service lines through 1968.

“There’s a lot that could be going on, but we don’t know yet," she said.

Betanzo says sorting out where lead lines remain is slow going. If there was technology that could differentiate the material in the ground, like a high tech metal detector, they could walk the city, she said. Since that's not available, it's one basement check at a time.

In the meantime, Betanzo helped Detroit do compliance testing for lead in water this summer. Usually this testing is done only once every three years. But Detroit decided to do it this summer, a year earlier than required, in light of everything going on in Flint.

Detroit has submitted the results to the state, but has not released the data publicly yet.

Elaine Houston's Detroit home was built in 1939.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Detroit is offering testing kits to residents with confirmed lead lines.

But because Elaine Houston’s home appeared to have a copper service line, the city did not test her water. I could tell she was a little disappointed, so I called her earlier this week to check back in.

“Oh yeah, definitely, I wanted a sample," she said, "Just to clear my mind, you know?"

I did. I told her I paid a company $25 to get my water in Grand Rapids tested. Houston had assumed a test would cost around $100, so she was happy to hear that the ballpark cost was lower than that.

"When I’m able enough, I’m going to go and get one myself," she said.

Eventually, Elin Betanzo says they’d like to be able to offer water tests to more people in Detroit who want them. But for now, the focus is on finding lead lines and doing comprehensive, not random, testing. That way, city leaders can have a better picture of where the risks are.