Tests find Birmingham has 5 sites with lead-tainted water; White Lake, 3

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The city of Birmingham has five sites with lead-tainted water, according to the city, resulting in the Oakland County community's decision late Monday to issue a public advisory.

White Lake Township authorities last week issued an advisory, alerting residents about three test sites that found higher lead levels.

Testing of five of 32 targeted  homes in Birmingham in September had levels of lead exceeding the federal safety standard of 15 parts per billion, according to the advisory. As a result, the city's water supply has a reading of 17 parts per billion based on the state's new testing methodology, city officials said.

During recent testing for lead and copper in White Lake Township, three of 30 locations in the township's two water distribution systems reported results over 15 parts per billion, city officials said in an advisory. The three locations were in the southernmost of the township's distribution systems, which was found to have 21 parts per billion of lead levels.

"Homes with lead service lines or lead solder have an increased risk of having high lead levels in drinking water," the notice read. "No lead service lines or goosenecks are known to exist in the White Lake Township water system. No lead has been detected in any source water wells in White Lake Township. Homes that were selected for sampling were built before 1988 and have copper plumbing with lead solder."

Public health experts have said any level of lead in drinking water is considered unacceptable. 

The five Birmingham sites affect a small portion of its 21,000 residents. About 6%, or 550 customers, have lead service lines, and less than 1 in 5 residents with lead service lines had elevated levels of lead.

"This does not mean every customer has elevated lead levels," according to Birmingham's advisory.

"An Action Level exceedance means that more than 10% of the samples tested under the new testing method have elevated lead levels.  ... The 'Action Level' is not a health-based standard, but it is a level that triggers additional actions including, but not limited to, increased investigative sampling of water quality and educational outreach to customers." 

In a statement, Birmingham City Manager Joe Valentine said: “While the Action Level exceedance is not a health-based standard nor a violation of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act, we do want the public to be aware of this change, our results and what it means to them."

But Oakland County Commission Chairman David Woodward took a graver tone.

“No level of lead in water is desirable. What we do together next will define how serious we are about protecting drinking water for everyone and for future generations,” said Woodward, D-Royal Oak.

Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician whose research help expose the Flint water crisis, said the results in Birmingham "are not a surprise" as "we have lead hidden throughout our drinking water infrastructure and now we are doing a better job testing."

“For too many Michiganders, lead — a potent poison with no safe level — is the straw that delivers our drinking water. I applaud the efforts of the revised Michigan Lead and Cooper Rule to better identify lead in our drinking water," Hanna-Attisha said.

"These newer elevated levels are not a surprise and reflect the potential risk posed for anyone that lives in a home with a lead service line. I’m hopeful that Birmingham will seize this opportunity to respect the science of lead’s neurotoxicity, be proactive and transparent, invest in getting the lead out of pipes. If any city can be a leader on this, it's Birmingham."

A county health official said pregnant women and children under 6 years old are especially vulnerable to high levels of lead in water, based on findings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Childhood lead poisoning most commonly occurs by breathing in lead dust, eating food items containing lead or chewing on surfaces covered with lead-based paint," said Leigh-Anne Stafford, Oakland County's health officer.

Oakland County Executive David Coulter's office indicated that White Lake Township had samples that exceeded federal lead and copper advisory levels.

“The quality of our drinking water is paramount, and we stand ready to support our local communities with these and future test results,” Coulter said in a statement on Monday. “Oakland County Health Division is working with communities to help them comply with revised lead rules while also distributing NSF-certified water filters to qualified households and educating the public.”

The cities differ from Flint, where most of the nearly 100,000 residents had lead levels far above the federal safety standard after it switched from the treated Metro Detroit water system to its own Flint River for drinking water in April 2014.

A task force appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder later found that the failure of city officials, led by a state-appointed emergency manager, and state environmental officials to put corrosion controls in the water resulted in lead leaching from aging pipelines into the drinking water.

Most of Flint has had lead levels below the federal safety standard for more than two years now, according to state testing. Most of Flint's sites tested below 6 parts per billion under the state's stricter guidelines in the most recent round of testing.

Critics have said if a wealthier community such as Bloomfield Hills had suffered the lead contamination that Flint did, there would have been more concern and faster action among state officials.

Testing has found that five of 32 sites in Birmingham, Michigan, have lead levels above the federal advisory level of 15 parts per billion.

Snyder created a new Michigan lead rule in response to Flint's water contamination. It will lower the state action level for lead to 12 parts per billion by 2025 and requires new testing procedures to ensure more accurate results.

The new rules also direct Michigan's communities to replace all lead service lines by 2041.

Birmingham directed its water customers to take action to reduce possible lead contamination in their water lines. They include:

*For lead service line customers, run the water for at least five minutes to flush out lead-containing water. For other customers, run the water for 30 seconds to 2 minutes

*Using cold water for drinking, cooking or preparing baby formula 

*Not boiling water because boiling does not remove lead

*Buying a filter for taps

Oakland County’s Health Division will be giving out water filter kits to qualifying Birmingham and White Lake residents, according to a county release.

To qualify, residents must receive water from the areas where higher lead levels were found and have a pregnant woman or at least one child under 18 living or spending several hours in the home weekly, and who receives low-income government benefits such as WIC or Medicaid health insurance or have difficulty affording a filter ($35) or replacement cartridges ($15), according to the county.

The filter kits will be distributed in Birmingham from 4-7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 151 Martin. Kits will be handed out in White Lake Township from 7-9 p.m. Thursday at Lakeland High School, 1630 Bogie Lake Road.

Birmingham said it plans to collect and test 60 samples of water every six months to determine if it needs to take corrective actions to reduce corrosion in household plumbing. 

White Lake Township authorities said the township plans to increase monitoring in the water distribution system where the sites with higher lead levels were found, and will be collecting samples from 40 locations every six months to determine if corrective actions are needed.


Detroit News Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed to this report.