Study finds contaminants in Mich. water supplies

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Drinking water in Michigan meets most federal guideline standards for quality but does have certain levels of contaminants in it that could be harmful over time, according to a national water study released Wednesday.

The analysis by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that studies and promotes environmental quality, found 81 contaminants in Michigan drinking water provided by various utility providers.

The EWG database allows anyone in the country to plug in a zip code or state to track what contaminants their local utilities found in their drinking water. The statistics, taken from 2010 through 2015 are provided by each state, with Michigan’s coming from the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Contaminants such as hexavalent chromium (a carcinogen), total trihalomethanes and radioactivity in water can lead to cancer and were commonly found in low levels in the water supply, the group found.

“I think people get these glossy, attractive folders from their water utilities that say we are meeting legal requirements, but the goal of this database and the goal of our analysis is to help people understand that that is not necessarily complete assurance that their drinking water is safe,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with the EWG. “In many cases, those contaminants are still occurring at levels that are harming some people in the population, increasing your risk of getting cancer, increasing your risk of miscarriage, or birth defects,” she said.

Lunder said water quality won’t improve or become safer “without stronger national laws, better legal limits for pollutants and more monitoring for these contaminants that the EPA hasn’t yet set limits for or state action for legal limits for pollutants.”

Some of these pollutants are ones “we create when we chlorinate water to kill bacteria to make it safer,” she said.

Melanie Brown, a spokeswoman for MDEQ, said the agency is “committed to ensuring that we look at all issues in a way that considers public health and safety as a priority.”

“The department regularly consults with our health counterparts to ensure a dialogue on emerging science and environmental issues,” she said. “Furthermore, we believe that infrastructure issues must be addressed in a comprehensive way, which is why the state of Michigan created the Governor’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission.”

The commission, she said, is “studying the challenges aging infrastructure presents to maintaining public health and to make recommendations on how to address them.”

Lunder said the city of Detroit’s water is “decent compared to other big cities that we’ve seen,” with only three contaminants that were detected above health guidelines: hexavalent chromium, total trihalomethanes and radioactivity.

By comparison, in Flint, which has been grappling with a lead crisis that made national headlines, nine contaminants — including bromodichloromethane, hexavalent chromium, chloroform, dichloroacetic acid, dibromochloromethane, trichloroacetic acid, total trihalomethanes, radioactivity and manganese — were found in the city’s water.

“The levels that are in Detroit water are perfectly legal but they do in our estimates, and in other scientists’ estimates, increase people’s lifetime risk of getting cancer for drinking water,” Lunder said.

The Great Lakes Water Authority, which provides water to 147 communities in the state, including Detroit and Flint, said in a statement that the GLWA “is committed to providing its member communities with water of exceptional quality” and meets or exceeds all federal and state drinking water requirements.

The GLWA will “consider” new treatment techniques as they become available to upgrade the system, officials said. But the authority’s statement emphasizes “our water often exceeds quality guidelines put in place by the EPA” and if more stringent guidelines were put in place, the authority would meet them.

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