State offers blood lead testing for Benton Harbor residents, but activists say more needed

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

State health officials on Monday announced blood testing and other help for Benton Harbor families dealing with high lead levels in their water, but some residents and activists are demanding more action for what they describe as an years-long environmental crisis.

"That's just the tip of the iceberg," said the Rev. Edward Pinkney, the president of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council. 

The latest move follows calls by environmental groups for the state to do more to help Benton Harbor residents deal with lead in the water.

The city on Michigan's southwest side became the second major municipality in the state in recent years to move to bottled water due to high lead levels in its water.

Benton Harbor residents receive cases of bottled water on Oct. 7 from the Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency through a state-funded program.

In recent sampling periods, lead levels have been even higher than in initial testing where limits were exceeded in fall 2018, the first year of the violation of the state's lead and copper rule. That year, eight homes tested above 15 parts per billion and the highest was 60 ppb.

"There is no safe level of lead in the blood. A blood test is the best way to determine if your child has lead in their blood," health officials said in a statement Monday. "By taking this test, your child may be eligible for nursing case management services."

Blood lead testing is available for children who are:

  • Patients at InterCare Family Health Network, 800 M-139, Benton Harbor, (855) 869-6900. 
  • Enrolled WIC participants at the Berrien County Health Department, 2149 E. Napier Ave., Benton Harbor, (800) 815-5485. 

Residents might be eligible for services to remove lead-based paint and other issues through a home lead inspection, water testing or fixing hazards. Information is available through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services at (866) 691-5323. 

Families also could be eligible to receive food assistance and other state aid such as health care coverage, child care, utility relief and cash assistance by calling 211 or applying online.

Cyndi Roper, the senior policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called on state officials to offer more aid to all residents and treat the situation "with an all-out emergency response."

Residents of Benton Harbor receive cases of bottled water on October 7, 2021 from Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency through a state-funded program with volunteers from Eagle, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, United Way, Bentor Harbor High School men's basketball team and other local volunteers. The group distributed 1,638 cases of bottled water due to unsafe levels of lead in the city's drinking water.

In 2021, 11 homes tested above 15 ppb with the highest coming in at 889 ppb.

For three consecutive years, Benton Harbor’s water sampling for lead has exceeded state limits and the amounts found in Flint before it became engulfed in its crisis in 2015.

It is also longer than when Parchment, near Kalamazoo, had two consecutive years of excessive lead levels before its lead pipes were replaced in 2020.

With blood testing, Roper said, "at this point you’re not going to be able to understand the level of exposure. The focus ought to be every child in Benton Harbor has consumed lead in the water and they should be eligible for all services regardless of what the blood lead level is."

Pinkney agreed, saying he believes after 28 days of initial exposure, the lead can go deeper.

"We’ve got to make (testing) extensive and go all into the tissue and try to find the solution," he said.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy recently started making bottled water available to residents following pressure from activists.

Last week, officials urged residents to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula.

Distributions continue this week at multiple sites:

  •  11 a.m. – 1 p.m. Tuesday at Abundant Life Church of God, 693 Columbus Ave.
  •  1-3 p.m. Wednesday and 4-6 p.m. Thursday at Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency, 331 Miller St.;
  •  2-6 p.m. Friday at God’s Household of Faith, 275 Pipestone, Benton Harbor

Since Sept. 30, 23,763 cases of water have been distributed, the state said Monday.

"Additional dates and locations for bottled water pick up will be added to make sure community needs are met," state officials said. 

The sites will be posted at Michigan.gov/MiLeadSafe

For information or to arrange water delivery, call 211 or the Berrien County Health Department water hotline at (800) 815-5485.

Besides the distributions, Pinkney and Roper both want state officials to officially declare the water unsafe to drink.

"Until they do that, there’s still confusion with residents about whether the water Is really unsafe or they’re just being careful," Roper said. "We know (high lead levels) they have been there at least three years and they need to tell them the water is unsafe and not be ambiguous about that." 

Meanwhile, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month announced a plan to spend $20 million to remove the estimated 2,400 or more lead pipes in Benton Harbor within five years. 

EGLE said lead pipes are a major reason for lead in the water but environmental groups claim corrosion control also has failed.