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Lead levels in Detroit children raise concerns

Posted at 6:03 PM, Feb 16, 2016

The crisis in Flint over the city's drinking water has focused renewed attention nationally on the dangers of lead. 

Lead concerns in Detroit have nothing to do with water, according to Gary Brown, the new director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

"I do want to assure every Detroiter that the water that they're receiving from DWSD is of the highest quality and standards," Brown told 7 Action News. 

Brown has only been on the job, officially, since January 1. Due to lead poisoning of residents in Flint, Brown said the question is asked frequently by customers who call or email the department. 

"We have chemists that are checking the water every four hours before it leaves the plant and Detroiters' can rest assured that the water is safe in the city of Detroit," said Brown.

Part of the concern comes from recent published reports of data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Children living in 10 zip codes in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck showed elevated lead levels, according to 2014 figures.  

Detroit City Council member Mary Sheffield wants more answers and plans to bring the matter to the legislative body. 

Twenty percent of children tested in zip code 48206 in Detroit show elevated lead levels in the most recent testing. That's part of the west-side district Sheffield represents.

"It's not the water," said Sheffield. "It's probably the old housing stock. It's the paint, it's the lead-based paint, it's the soil, the dirt, and so, we need to know as a city what exactly is causing it and, again, how we as a city and me as a council member can make sure that my residents and constituents are safe."

Today, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) released this statement in response to questions about the safety of drinking water in the city:

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Water Department (DWSD) takes the issue of quality drinking water very seriously.  Any statements that have suggested our neighborhoods have excessive lead in their water are simply incorrect.  In light of the recent controversy regarding Flint water, DWSD would like to emphasize that for decades, Detroit’s water has not only met but exceeded EPA standards for lead control.

Many of the homes built in the United States prior to the end of World War II contained lead pipes. Today, Detroit no longer allows lead pipes to be used for home construction or repairs. Like many communities with older housing stock, Detroit has long practiced lead corrosion control to ensure the high quality of its water. Federal regulations acknowledge that the best approach to minimize exposure to lead in drinking water is establishing a protective coating in pipes to minimize the ability of lead or other materials from the service lines or plumbing fixtures in homes to leach into the water. When the issue of lead control came to light in the 1990s, Detroit began its lead corrosion control program, before the EPA even required it. Standards under the EPA’s “lead and copper rule” state that if lead in the water exceeds 15 ppb (parts per billion), remedial action is required. The lead levels in Detroit water are far under the federal action limit and Detroit is considered an optimized community by the EPA for its corrosion control efforts.

While we are proud of this effort, we continue to be vigilant to ensure that we build upon our progress. The city of Detroit has contracted with the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), the regional water authority that serves southeast Michigan, to perform lead and copper testing as required by the EPA. GLWA provides the communities it serves, including Detroit, with water of unquestionable quality and follows stringent EPA guidelines to ensure all testing is in compliance with the standards imposed by federal and state regulators.

The most recent testing in Detroit was completed in 2014 and disclosed that, 100% of the homes tested were well below EPA’s action level.  The testing included older homes where lead service lines and lead solder existed.  For homes built prior to 1950, there are simple steps that can be taken to ensure safer water. Those efforts include using a certified water filter to remove lead from the tap, flushing out the tap water lines (let the water run) after a period of stagnation, and minimizing the consumption of water from the hot water tap where lead is more likely present.  Additional information can be found at: www.drink.tap.org.

Finally, it is important to note that exposure to lead can come from sources other than water. A recent article published by Bridge Magazine titled “Places with Higher Lead Rates than Flint” pointed to lead paint in older homes as a cause for lead exposure.  While DWSD is dedicated to working with the Detroit Health and Wellness Department as well as other City Departments to address lead concerns on a collaborative basis, it is important for residents to be aware of lead-based materials that may be in the home. Homeowners interested in lead testing services should call 313-926-8128 for further information or DWSD Customer Care at 313-267-8000.