Kevin Stack of the Berrien County Highways Department fills jugs with unsafe water in the parking lot of Benton Harbor High School, Benton Harbor, Michigan on October 21, 2021.
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File
ST. LOUIS (AP) — Filters distributed in Benton Harbor, Mich., during the city’s recent lead water crisis worked fine, according to a study conducted by state officials to reassure residents.
Michigan officials said the study was done “on the side of caution” after Benton Harbor residents and advocates criticized the state’s slow response to the city’s lead problem and called for more aggressive actions, including a study of filters.
“We have found that properly used filters are successful in significantly and consistently reducing lead,” said Tera Fong, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water division for the region that includes Michigan.
But Fong noted that the agency has also found that filters are not being used correctly in many cases, and that raising public awareness could help fix the problem.
The filters were distributed in early 2019 after tests revealed high lead levels in Benton Harbor’s tap water. After persistently high lead levels, residents and activists expressed concern that the predominantly black city was being ignored even in the wake of the crisis in Flint. Shortly after, officials promised stronger corrective measures, including a filter study.
In the meantime, state officials have recommended residents rely primarily on free bottled water, leading residents to line up at distribution sites. State officials said water delivery is now offered daily and crates can be delivered to residents who are struggling to collect them.
The study released Thursday by the EPA found that all samples from nearly 200 homes with properly used pitcher and faucet filters had low lead levels that met federal guidelines. No lead was detected in the vast majority of samples.
The filters that were distributed at Benton Harbor are certified to reduce lead, unlike many standard household water filters, and are meant to be used with cold water. Filter cartridges should be replaced once they expire.
Michigan officials said recent tests show lead levels in the city’s tap water are within federal thresholds and there are no other contamination issues. But they said the state will continue to provide free bottled water until the city’s lead service line replacements are complete by spring 2023.
Lead exposure is of concern because of the health problems it can cause, especially in young children who may experience problems including slowed cognitive development.
The filters have also been part of the response to lead water crises in other cities and are important because they allow residents to continue using water in their homes, rather than having to carry crates of lead. bottled water at home.
But Ben Pauli, chairman of the board of one of the organizations that signed the petition in Benton Harbor and an activist during the Flint crisis, said the filters shouldn’t be used as an excuse to stop handing out oil. bottled water, which some people prefer.
Elin Warn Betanzo of consultancy firm Safe Water Engineering said there was no evidence of poor filter performance at Benton Harbor last year, but a “lack of data”. When deficiencies were identified at the city water plant beyond lead, she raised questions about the effectiveness of the filters and argued that the answer lies with bottled water.
Filter concerns have also become an issue in Newark, New Jersey. Although the vast majority of filters worked well during this city’s crisis, confidence in them was undermined after officials initially said they were unreliable based on a small number of results, said Jeannie M. Purchase, who researched water filters at Virginia Tech and now works at a Washington DC water utility.
Buy said cities should conduct studies before distributing filters and explain that no device is perfect, but they are generally very effective.
Darren Lytle, a senior scientist with the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, also noted that the water chemistry at Newark is different from that at Benton Harbor, making filter problems at Benton Harbor less likely. . State officials said in October that a study would be done to validate this.
Still, the decision to temporarily halt the distribution of filters in Benton Port could undermine trust in them, said Sri Vedachalam, who leads the water program at the Center for Environmental Policy Innovation.
Marc A. Edwards, a water treatment researcher at Virginia Tech, said whether authorities provide bottled water during a lead crisis is a political decision. He said filters are very reliable at removing lead and relying on bottled water can be expensive and inconvenient.
“Once communities get into bottled water, it’s a habit and it’s hard to get rid of it,” he said.