Local communities explain testing process for lead in public water system

Published 11:03 am Thursday, February 4, 2016

Over the last several months, the city of Flint — and the entire state of Michigan — has found itself in the national spotlight over a menace that lies dormant in one of the public’s most vital natural resources.

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The issue of lead contamination in public drinking water has come raging back into the American consciousness since news broke late last year of the high concentration of the toxic metal in the Eastern Michigan city’s water following the switch from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River.

In spite of decades of federal regulation meant to combat the problem, the crisis in Flint has demonstrated that lead’s presence in the waters people consume on a daily basis hasn’t evaporated — including that of the water systems used by residents of Cass and Berrien counties.

While well below the concentrations of lead seen in many Flint households, data published by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality shows that systems in local communities such as Dowagiac, Cassopolis, Niles, Buchanan and Edwardsburg contain trace amounts of the metal, which has been linked to a number of health problems, including impaired neurodevelopment in children.

In Dowagiac, 90 percent of samples collected from faucets in 12 homes and businesses connected to the city’s water system last year contained 4 parts-per-billion (PPB) or less of lead.

Water from these locations were collected by trained city employees who are licensed by the state, who then sent the samples to MDEQ-authorized labs for testing, said City Manager Kevin Anderson.

“You try to go to some of the more remote sections, those that have the least amount of water flowing through them, since that’s where your highest risk would be,” Anderson said.

The recent levels are reduction from samples collected in 2012, the last time the city had its lead and copper levels tested, which showed that 90 percent of homes/businesses tested had 6 ppb or less of lead in their water.

In sites tested last year in Cassopolis, though, lead concentration has shot up, with 90 percent of the 10 sites sampled showing 11 ppb, increased over the 6 ppb levels reported in 2012.

The 90th percentile figures in Niles Township, which provides water to 650 households in the southern part of the township, also rose last year, from 5.6 ppb in 2012 to 8 ppb in 2015. Like Cassopolis, the township takes samples from 10 sites within its water system.

The figures seen in these communities, as well as those in the city of Niles, Buchanan and Edwardsburg, are still well below the 15 ppb threshold levels set in place by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which mandates that communities must take action to address lead levels once the 90 percentile exceeds this limit. Per EPA guidelines, Dowagiac and other municipalities must test their public water supplies for lead and copper contamination every three years.

These numbers are also well below the lead concentrations in Flint found in a study conducted by researchers with Virginia Tech last year. In that study, researchers discovered that 90 percent of the 271 homes sampled had 25.2 ppb or less of lead, well in excess of the EPA action level.

Typically, lead winds up in public water supplies due to corrosion of old piping found within the water system, be it from pipes operated by municipalities or those found within homes. This corrosion is caused by elevated acidity in water, something that Dowagiac water crews monitor on a regular basis, Anderson said.

The department of public services also replaces any lead-based mains or other pipes when they are encountered during maintenance or repair work, the city manager said.

“We try to be pretty diligent about this,” Anderson said. “We understand the health risks involved with using public water systems and try to minimize those when we can.”

The city only has control over waterlines within the public right-of-way, though, Anderson said. While the Safe Drinking Water Act prohibits the installation of lead piping in homes built after 1986, many homes with plumbing that predates this mandate may still contain pipes that could leech lead.

On top of regular monitoring, the village of Cassopolis also treats its ground-based water supply with phosphate, a chemical commonly used to combat the dissolving of lead in piping, said Ben Anderson, the superintendent of the village’s department of public works.

The village has also been diligent in removing old lead based piping from its system, Anderson said.

“Over the past 10 years, I’ve dug up to repair hundreds of lines, and I’ve never encountered any lead lines,” he said. “Even in the oldest parts of the system, they were using steel.”

Similarly, Niles Township Director of Public Works Gary Schrader said that he has yet to come across lead piping within the township’s system. The department also doesn’t add chemicals or other substance to mitigate lead.

“We have good enough water we don’t have to do any treatment to it,” he said.

People who are concerned about lead concentrations in their water could also use home-based filtration systems. However, the Dowagiac city manager said that should not be necessary for homes and businesses connected to the city’s water system.

“Historically, the water we produce through the tap is safe for drinking, and we expect that to continue in the future,” Anderson said.

Any resident concerned about their drinking water can get their water tested by calling the MDEQ Drinking Water Lab at 517-335-8184.