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One small sampling change this summer could reveal many more lead in water warnings

Filling a sample bottle.
Virginia Tech

Michigan cities and towns with lead water pipes will have to start taking more and better drinking water samples this summer. About 650 municipal water systems are testing for lead in water beginning in June.

The changes are part of a larger effort to strengthen the lead in water standards after the Flint water crisis. Michigan now has the toughest standards in the country.

Read more: Ripple Effects of the Flint Water Crisis

State regulators expect the better quality samples will reveal higher lead levels in some communities.

“We figure it’ll go up,” said Eric Oswald of lead levels in community drinking water systems. Oswald heads the drinking water division for Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).   

But how many communities and by how much?

“I wouldn’t even hazard a guess,” Oswald said. “There are so many variables it’s nearly impossible for us to predict what’s going to happen.”

The difference is in what’s called the 5th liter draw. Residents will be instructed to take the first liter from the faucet as normal. But then they’ll take four more liter samples in a row. The first and fifth samples will go to the lab.

The idea is, the fifth sample has a better chance of capturing lead levels from water that sat in a lead service pipe. Before this year, only the very first liter was captured and sent to a lab.

Sequential water samples of homes with lead service lines can often reveal higher levels of lead after the first draw sample, according to an EPA study.

“Once you sample what’s been sitting in that lead service line I think that gives a better idea of what the exposure to lead actually is,” Oswald said.

It’s definitely a little more complicated process for municipalities and residents who take the samples.

“You get three people coming up to the tap to do the test and you get them doing it three different way, said Bonnifer Ballard, who heads the Michigan section of the American Water Works Association.

“That’s when you figure out that you’ve got to deal with all these little just nuances of taking the sample,” she said.

Some cities with more resources, like Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, are having a trained employee do the sampling, instead of relying on residents.

“We’re trying to make it as simple as we can obviously understanding this is a little more complex than it’s been in the past,” Oswald said.

Oswald hopes the legislature will approve funding more staff to support lead and copper oversight. Communities with issues rely on EGLE staff for all sorts of guidance. If there’s a large increase in the number of communities with high lead levels, that could overwhelm state staff.

“Even though you might see more action level exceedances there’s been no degradation in your water quality,” Oswald stressed. “It’s just going to help us going forward to improve water quality and identify those systems that may not be as optimized in their corrosion control as we thought they were at one time.”

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Radio’s Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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