Highland Park warns of elevated lead levels found in homes

Candice Williams
The Detroit News
Highland Park spokeswoman Marli Blackman addresses the media on Wednesday as the city reveals elevated levels of lead in some homes in the city.

Highland Park — City officials are advising residents to take precautions while using tap water after a recent sample of homes tested as high as 41 times the government's allowable level for lead.

While nobody is discouraging residents from drinking their tap water, city officials are encouraging people to flush their water if it hasn't been used for several hours. They also are recommending those most vulnerable — children and pregnant woman — use water that has been sent through a certified lead filter. 

Also recommended is the use of cold water for drinking or cooking, and residents are encouraged to see if their homes have lead service lines.

The city conducted water testing this spring on 36 homes whose occupants voluntarily responded to offers of free water testing, which the city conducts every three years. Nine of those homes were found to have elevated lead levels, officials said.

The average lead results for the homes tested were 57 parts per billion — more than three times higher than the action level of 15 parts per billion. The homes ranged between 0 ppb to 620 ppb, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

This is the first time since the early 1990s the city has tested positive for elevated lead levels, according to EGLE.

“This is the first time that we’ve had elevated tests so we are not ringing the alarm saying the water is unsafe,” said Damon Garrett, director of the Highland Park’s water department, during a news conference Wednesday about the findings.

“We have no reason to believe that we are in a state of emergency, but we are ultra-sensitive to this issue. We want to make sure that we’re communicating properly with everyone, but we still want to be calm about this and let everybody know that we have a plan, that there’s information out there. Everyone is not contaminated.”

The homes that responded for testing are throughout the city. Garrett said he didn’t know if the impacted homes have children or elderly residents.

“We know that this community ... we’re on both ends of the extreme,” he said. “We have a lot of homes with small children. We have a lot of homes with an aging population. We have a lot of veterans. It’s a heightened issue because we know what the demographics are like in the city.”

The Department of Health and Human Services provided water filters to the Wayne County Health Department for Highland Park residents. The filters will be available at the Highland Park Fire Station at 25 Gerald St.

“We’ve got plenty available,” said Carol Austerberry, acting director and health officer for the Wayne County Health Department. “No one would go without a filter who would want one.”

There are 1,500 filters initially available for low-income households with pregnant women and children, said Bob Wheaton, with the state health and human services department. 

The water results come a year after the state Department of Health and Human Services released data that showed one in seven children in Highland Park had elevated levels of lead in their blood in 2016.

High blood lead levels can lead to developmental problems, behavioral disorders and learning difficulties, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are 2,400 water customers in Highland Park, and a majority of the city's homes have lead service lines, Garrett said.

According to EGLE, the city has until January to identify the number of lead and galvanized service lines it has and develop a plan to replace 7% of the lead service lines by the end of June.

EGLE spokesman Scott Dean said the department will assist Highland Park. He said the state will work with the Great Lakes Water Authority, which services the city's water system, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to analyze data and determine the root cause of the high lead results.

"A major step will be evaluating the efficacy of their corrosion control, which is provided by GLWA," he said.

Corrosion control was at the center of Flint's water crisis. After the city switched to the Flint River as its water source in April 2014, a lack of corrosion control measures was blamed for damaging pipes in the city and the release of lead into water supply.

In a statement Wednesday, officials with the Great Lakes Water Authority noted that communities in Michigan are conducting their first round of testing using new sampling protocol adopted in Michigan’s revised Lead and Copper Rule, and that the results are due to EGLE beginning mid-July.  

"The new sampling protocol added an additional sample that will represent water that has remained static in lead service lines to homes for a minimum of six hours," GLWA said. "For many local systems, the results could mean higher lead and copper numbers than seen in prior sampling protocols. It is important to note that GLWA continues to have water of unquestionable quality.

"...  As it relates to lead and copper, that means assuring that our water quality team is optimizing corrosion control throughout our regional system."

Garrett said the city has been in contact with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services since July 9. And residents will receive more information about lead in drinking water over the next several weeks.

Officials said Highland Park will collect 60 samples every six months for testing and review the results to determine the next steps. Residents can call a city customer service line to request testing, which will start Monday. Each test will cost $18. 

But Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp said he wants the state to pay for the water testing.

“I think the state should step up,” he said. “I look at the Flint situation. We’re not going to repeat that. … Let’s be on the safe side. Let’s test them all.”

It would cost $22 million to replace the city’s 12 miles of lead service lines in the nearly three-square-mile city, officials said. 

Dean said EGLE is committed to helping communities in finding resources to complete lead service line replacement. He said that current funding proposed for 2020 allows for replacement.

Highland Park resident Eban Morales, 55, said Wednesday he’s concerned about the quality of the water, which he doesn't use to drink or cook.

Leadership has been lax in protecting residents, Morales said.

“The majority of our city is low-income, disabled, elderly, retired,” he said. “We will definitely need help, but I’m not trusting of the state either.”

In a statement Wednesday, state Rep. LaTanya Garrett, D-Detroit, said she is committed to ensuring that Highland Park receives all the resources it needs from the state to ensure safe drinking water. 

"I will be immediately reaching out to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her staff requesting them to provide assistance to Mayor Hubert Yopp and his staff as they work diligently to address this matter head-on," she said.

"Needless to say, I am going to work day and night to ensure that another water crisis, like the one the residents in the city of Flint endured, is not repeated in Highland Park."

Residents who want their water service line inspected or want their drinking water tested for lead should call the Highland Park Water Department at (313) 865-1876.


Twitter: @CWilliams_DN

Staff writer Charles E. Ramirez contributed.