The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHSS) on Wednesday recommended Benton Harbor residents to rely on bottled water instead of tap water as a precaution while various agencies work to reduce the risk of exposure to lead. Activist groups say lead in the city’s drinking water has been an “ongoing, widespread and serious public health crisis” for at least three years.
“Protecting the health and safety of Benton Harbor residents is a top priority,” said state health director Elizabeth Hertel in a statement. “We listened to the concerns of the community and encourage residents to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, and brushing their teeth.”
As part of the consultation, bottled water is made available at various distribution points across the city. To date, more than 4,500 cases of bottled water have been delivered to Benton Harbor, and another 15,500 cases are due to be delivered in the coming days, according to the Michigan Department of Health.
Benton Harbor residents can continue to use unfiltered water for bathing, hand washing, dishes, clothing and cleaning, MDHSS said.
Health officials said free bottled water will be “provided for as long as necessary” while the Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a filter effectiveness study. The EPA didn’t say when the study was expected to be completed.
“Cooperation, collaboration and coordination are key ingredients in replacing senior service lines and ensuring that every resident is protected as we work to resolve Benton Harbor’s water problems,” said Mayor Marcus Muhammad.
The initiative follows pressure from environmental and public advocacy groups who say that drinking water in the city is “an immediate and significant threat to Benton Harbor residents”.
On September 9, organizations such as the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, Flint Rising and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition petitioned the EPA calling for “immediate action to address the health emergency.”
According to the petition, the predominantly black population in Benton Harbor has been struggling with a high lead content in drinking water since the summer of 2018. Their leading service lines in the city have not been replaced for years, which violates federal and state requirements, the organizations wrote.
“Benton Harbor residents are not only exposed to disproportionate exposure to lead from a variety of sources outside of their drinking water, but often lack access to quality health care and face a variety of other threats, including the negative health effects associated with lead exposure “says the petition.
The EPA says that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood and that the negative health effects of drinking water that is present in lead include behavioral problems, low IQ, hyperactivity, slowed growth, anemia, cardiovascular effects, decreased kidney function, and reproductive problems.
The groups claim the EPA, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), and other agencies have consistently failed to ensure timely action to respond to the high levels of lead.
MDHSS and EGLE did not immediately respond to CBS News’ request for comment on Wednesday.
Following the publication of the petition, EGLE announced on September 30th that it was working to permanently reduce excess lead in water by replacing all lead lines within the city. The agency also said that Benton Harbor residents would be provided free bottled water that day.