After Flint Crisis, Michigan Sets a New Standard for Lead in Drinking Water

Four years after the city of Flint began grappling with a drinking water crisis that brought national attention to environmental racism and lead contamination, Michigan state officials have unveiled new rules that will require drinking water utilities to eventually replace all lead service lines running to schools, homes and businesses.

Meanwhile, environmental groups say lead contamination in schools across the United States is more pervasive than previously thought, putting millions of children at risk. Environmentalists are calling on federal regulators to follow Michigan’s example, but the Trump administration has done little besides pay lip service to the issue.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin, particularly in children. Even low levels of lead in the blood have been shown to affect a child’s ability to pay attention and perform well on tests. Medical experts estimate that 24 million children nationwide will encounter these problems due to lead exposure, according to the environmental group Environment America.

“Wherever there are fountains, pipes or plumbing made with lead, there is risk of contamination,” said John Rumpler, Environment America’s clean water director, in a statement. “As more schools test, they are finding this potent neurotoxin in the water our kids drink every day.”

Michigan Moves Ahead Despite Federal Inaction

In 2015, doctors and researchers noticed that children in Flint had alarmingly elevated levels of lead in their blood, and a national controversy erupted as the truth came out.

City and state officials had switched the city’s municipal water source as a cost cutting measure the previous year but failed to treat the water correctly and prevent corrosion, causing aging pipes to leach lead into drinking water. Residents in the working-class, majority-Black city were forced to install filters and use bottled water for months on end.

Last year, the state of Michigan agreed to spend up to $97 million in state and federal funds to dig up and replace the lead pipes in Flint after settling a lawsuit filed by local residents and environmental groups. State officials are now issuing new drinking water standards that they say are the toughest in the nation.

“The federal Lead and Copper Rule simply does not do enough to protect public health,” Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said on Thursday. “As a state, we could no longer afford to wait on needed changes at the federal level, so Michigan has stepped up to give our residents a smarter, safer rule — one that better safeguards water systems in all communities.”

The new rules will increase testing for lead contamination and require utilities to start replacing lead service lines across Michigan in 2021 and complete the job over the next two decades, according to Snyder’s office. Environmentalists say the rest of the country should take notice. 

Cyndi Roper, a Michigan policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the environmental groups that settled with the city in 2017, said the rules “will never make up for the disaster in Flint” or completely solve the lead contamination problem in Michigan. However, they will ensure communities are better protected in the future.

“There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, so despite some troubling loopholes, these rules set an example other states and the Environmental Protection Agency could follow to address an issue plaguing water systems across the country,” Roper said in a statement.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt has said that he wants to eliminate lead from US drinking water within a decade by replacing pipes and updating infrastructure, but environmentalists say the agency has yet to formulate a solid plan for doing so.

The EPA has been reviewing its Lead and Copper Rule for drinking water since 2015, when the Flint crisis appeared in national headlines. The agency says it continues to work with state and local governments to review several options for reducing exposure to lead in drinking water, including improved corrosion controls, public education initiatives and new filters for faucets and drinking fountains. 

Then there is the most effective but expensive option: Replace the lead water pipes in the ground altogether, as Michigan has pledged to do for its residents by 2041.  

“Getting lead services lines out of the ground is the most effective way to reduce the potential for dangerous water contamination,” Roper said.

Under Pruitt, the EPA has aggressively moved to dismantle environmental rules and protections, not create new ones. Removing lead from the nation’s water supply would require new pipes and water infrastructure, and so far the Trump administration’s proposal for updating the nation’s crumbling infrastructure by encouraging private investment has failed to gain traction.

Last year, the NRDC released a report showing that nearly one-quarter of people living in the US get their drinking water from one of the 18,000 water systems in all 50 states that reported violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015, including lead levels exceeding the 15 parts per billion standard. At the time, the Trump administration was eyeing deep cuts to programs safeguarding drinking water and public health.

Lead Contamination in Schools Nationwide

After the Flint crisis shocked the nation, schools across the US began testing their drinking water for lead. Analysis of school test results in 20 states released by Environment America and US Public Interest Research Groups this week shows that lead contamination in schools is worse than previously thought. Dozens of schools in cities such as Cleveland, Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta have tested positive for lead at levels exceeding 15 parts per billion, the maximum allowed under federal safe drinking water standards.

There is no safe level of lead in drinking water for children, and advocates say the 15 parts per billion standards is not adequate to protect public health. In fact, the EPA’s standard is based on what corrosion control technology can be expected to achieve, not health standards. Under the state’s new standards, Michigan will lower its “lead action level” from 15 to 12 parts per billion beginning in 2025.

However, some schools only report lead contamination when it exceeds that 15 parts per billion threshold, according to Environment America. Those that do report any level of lead in their drinking water reveal a much more widespread contamination problem. 

In Texas, for example, 71 percent of schools had lead in their water at levels above 1 part per billion in 2017, according to the analysis. Nearly half of the tests conducted at schools in Massachusetts last year showed some level of lead.

Environmental experts say that physically replacing lead service lines running into schools is the best way to reduce lead exposure in the long run, but this takes time and money that schools don’t always have without additional support from the government. In the meantime, schools that test positive for lead should install filters on their drinking fountain taps, and the current summer vacation season is a great time to do it.