Michigan’s rules for testing lead in drinking water may give ‘false sense of confidence’ in water quality

This story co-published with HuffPost.

New lead rules Michigan instated in 2018 following the Flint water crisis were heralded as the nation’s strictest, but lax enforcement and flaws in testing protocols are making the state’s drinking water appear safer than it likely is, a Planet Detroit and HuffPost analysis of state records finds. 

Public health advocates say some of the most at-risk water systems are not following a key provision that requires systems that exceed lead limits to check the water from lead pipes in follow-up testing.  

The systems are instead checking water from pipes made of a different or unknown material.  That makes their lead levels look lower than they may actually be and allows officials to legally claim that the water is safe to drink.   

“It’s giving residents a false sense of confidence in their water quality,” said Elin Betanzo, a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist who now runs the Michigan-based clean water advocacy group Safe Water Engineering. 

Moreover, public health advocates say the state’s newly implemented Lead and Copper Rule requires water systems to check too few pipes, and annual testing is too infrequent, to give a realistic picture of lead hazards – releases are unpredictable, and dangerous amounts of particles can leach at any time. 

State records also show that some municipalities still don’t know what materials 90% of their service lines are made of. And because 10% of a system’s results must exceed limits before follow-up testing is triggered, some pipes releasing lead levels that are considered dangerous to human health have resulted in little action. 

The problems have created a “disconnect between what we measure, what conclusions we draw and the messaging we deliver,” said Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech professor and activist for the Campaign for Lead Free Water. 

“At the end of the day, people want to know that their water is safe to drink and cook with … but even if we found an ideal formula or used statistically significant sampling, we still couldn’t really tell any individual home what’s happening in the taps that they’re using,” she added. 

The new rules also increased testing from every three years to annually, required more robust follow-up testing when a water system exceeds limits, and in 2025 will lower the action level from 15 parts per billion (ppb) to 12 ppb.

Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is responsible for enforcing the rules. Its spokesperson, Hugh McDiarmid, confirmed that some systems with lead levels that exceeded the state’s threshold for action were not specifically checking water from lead lines during follow-up testing, but he said they were given a pass because many systems were built so long ago that there’s no record of which pipes are made of lead anyway. 

EPA’s guidance on the federal Lead and Copper Rule, however, says that systems should look for more lead pipes in such scenarios, and states must follow the agency’s rules when they don’t have their own. Michigan has given water systems until 2025 to take a full inventory of their pipes’ material. 

McDiarmid also said EGLE lacks the resources to fully monitor the lead testing that local water utilities are conducting. 

“EGLE isn’t staffed to thoroughly review all the individual sample sites from every system to ascertain that each indeed is from known lead service lines,” he said.

In response to public health advocates’ concerns about methodology, McDiarmid said EGLE “enforces the requirement of the state Lead and Copper rule, so we’re working within the regulatory framework we are given.”

Betanzo said officials at all levels of government likely allow water systems to skirt the rules for two reasons: Lead contamination is a public relations headache, and actually solving the issue is expensive. 

This increases the urgency of ensuring water customers can use filters, Lambrinidou said. Even if the state’s lead lines are replaced by 2041 as the new rules require, plumbing fixtures in homes can contain lead, and places that never installed lead service lines still find levels in their water that violate federal rules. 

“We need to give up on testing to determine if taps are safe and we must assume every tap is a lead risk, and that’s scientifically reasonable because we have lead-bearing pipes everywhere,” she said. 

Why Testing Has Failed

In 2019, Dearborn Heights exceeded the state’s lead action level when water from about 17% of 30 sites the city tested were over the lead limit. That triggered follow-up testing of 62 sites, and the city found 13% were above the limit. 

But during more follow-up testing in late 2020, the numbers began to improve – only four sites exceeded the limit. By early 2021, only two sites, or 3%, were over, and many registered no lead at all. Dearborn Heights and the state deemed the city’s water safe to drink. 

This wasn’t due to an environmental miracle, though. The numbers dropped because Dearborn Heights stopped testing water from pipes it knew were made of lead. Data obtained via the Freedom of Information Act indicate that all or most of the pipes checked during the first two rounds were made of lead. In the final two rounds, just 13 and zero were, respectively. 

“Magic – there’s no more lead action level exceedance,” Betanzo said. 

The actual scope of lead contamination in Dearborn Heights, a largely middle-class suburb of Detroit, remains unclear.

Dearborn Heights tested its water in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Only on its third round of testing, after it tested only 21% of sites using a testing protocol designed to capture water from lead service lines, was it able to achieve compliance under Michigan’s Lead and Copper rule, which requires that fewer than 10% of samples exceed 15 ppb. Data provided by EGLE via FOIA request.

And though EGLE’s rules mandate that water systems conduct follow-up testing at sites that are “served by a lead service line,” Dearborn Heights isn’t alone. Of 33 water systems that have lead pipes and recorded elevated lead levels in 2019 and 2020, at least 17 included water samples from lines made of non-lead or unknown material in follow-up testing at some or all sites. These include Royal Oak Township, Clare, St. Clair Shores, Harper Woods, and Garden City. 

McDiarmid noted that Dearborn Heights and Royal Oak Township only have a very small number of confirmed lead pipes to check, and said the rules allow water systems that “cannot access enough known” lead lines to test water from non-lead pipes, or lines made of unknown material. 

But EGLE’s rules don’t say anything about “access.” They state that systems can check non-lead lines if there are “insufficient” lead pipes. Dearborn Heights and Royal Oak Township’s water quality reports show that they have about 2,000 and 700 service lines, respectively, made of an unknown material.

Royal Oak Township, which only has nine confirmed lead pipes, just received a county grant and forgivable loan from EGLE worth $3.4 million to fund about 600 lead line replacements over the next two years. Meanwhile, Dearborn Heights’ preliminary inventory of its water system indicates a high probability of more lead pipes. 

Betanzo charged that the problem isn’t “insufficient” lead lines – the state simply isn’t requiring water systems to look for them even though those in question have exceeded lead limits and are among the most at risk. It’s also possible that in some cases water systems are only checking the first liter of water instead of the first and fifth liters, as EGLE rules mandate, which is a change implemented to catch water that had been sitting in service lines farther away from the tap. Testing only the first liter would also reduce the likelihood of finding lead. 

“It looks like EGLE is letting water systems do whatever they want if they haven’t confirmed a lead service line,” Betanzo said.

Dearborn Heights water officials didn’t return calls from Planet Detroit. 

‘Russian roulette’

Around 311,000 service lines deliver water in Detroit, and since the new law went into effect, the city has declared that it is in compliance with state law and safe from lead contamination. 

But city records show that around 80,000 Detroit pipes contain lead, and another nearly 30,000 are made of an unknown material. Under the state’s Lead and Copper Rule, the city only checks 50 pipes in the entire system annually, and public health advocates say that’s too few to provide a meaningful picture of lead levels across Detroit’s 146 square miles. 

And while testing annually instead of every three years is an improvement, public health advocates say it’s not enough because it’s impossible to know when lead will leach into water.  The age of pipes, the state of corrosion controls, the water use patterns within systems and homes, and vibrations caused by traffic or construction all factor into lead releases. 

In a city like Detroit with a high number of lead pipes, the state’s methodology “isn’t going to capture what’s really happening in the water system,” said Susan Little, a health advocate with the Environmental Working Group, a national clean water advocacy group. 

“The sampling is woefully underdone – it’s minuscule compared to what the real need is,” she said. “Especially since lead is not predictable. It can pop up anywhere.”

That’s supported by academic studies that have found that single annual tests “falsely indicate that a water is safe” and hundreds of tests under a variety of water flow conditions are needed before an accurate picture of lead contamination levels can take shape. 

Moreover, the law doesn’t trigger a community-wide response until at least 10% of a sample is above the lead action level. Public health advocates say the threshold is too high, and a flaw in that approach is highlighted by a 2020 Pontiac test that found a dangerous count of 2,900 ppb that didn’t trigger follow-up testing. 

“That creates a Russian roulette situation,” Little said. 

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department didn’t answer questions in an email from Planet Detroit, but said residents can request that the agency check their homes for lead pipes for no cost. 

McDiarmid said the sample pool isn’t designed to be statistically significant, but “is intentionally focused on the sites with the greatest potential for a lead problem.” Referencing the 2,900 ppb measurement found in Pontiac, he noted that the homeowner was notified, and said the state sometimes identifies issues that cause such spikes. 

“Sometimes the home was unoccupied for an extended period of time, other times the location is found to have very low water usage,” he said. “Irrespective of reason, this variability in data at some locations is why flushing before using water for the first time in a while is so important.”

Planet Detroit’s Solving Lead & Asthma in Detroit series is underwritten, in part, by the Erb Family Foundation.

Correction 12/3/21: A prior version of this story included data that overstated the number of action-level exceedances in Dearborn Heights. We regret the error.


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