City manager: ‘Don’t panic about water’

Residents react to news of high lead levels

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published October 14, 2019


BIRMINGHAM — Last week, Birmingham City Manager Joe Valentine was flooded with calls from panicked residents asking if their water was safe following a notice from the state of Michigan that the city had yielded water samples with higher-than-desirable lead levels.

His response to the callers was simple: Your water is as safe today as it was yesterday.

“These are individual private properties where lead was detected in water, with lead lead-ins. This isn’t from our general water source,” Valentine said. “The real takeaway here is that the state of Michigan has changed how it’s testing water.”

The startling results came from routine compliance sampling required by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy under Michigan’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Of 32 targeted homes sampled, five revealed lead levels that exceeded the action level of 15 parts per billion.

The action level, according to the EGLE, is the number that triggers automatic efforts for residents in the affected area, which can range from simple alerts and educational outreach to plans for infrastructure improvements.

Lead, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is most dangerous to growing children and pregnant women. Lead poisoning can be linked to an array of negative effects ranging from gastrointestinal complications to more serious symptoms, like developmental delays, learning difficulties, chronic irritability, hearing loss, seizures and more.

Readings have never exceeded state-standard levels since Birmingham began testing for lead and copper in the water in 1992. The culprit this time around for tests tripping the action level threshold, Valentine explained, is a stricter method for obtaining samples, like testing water from different parts of service lines and testing water that’s been sitting stagnant in pipes.

Those methods have been implemented, Valentine said, to better detect possible lead in drinking water. And the result is just that: Of the 8,870 water customers in the city, about 6% of them — about 550 customers — have lead service leads from the general water supply into homes. The EGLE considers compliance with the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act to be lead and copper levels at or below 15 ppb for the 90th percentile of samples collected in that round of testing. Birmingham was determined to have a water supply with lead levels at 17 ppb. In 2025, Michigan’s Safe Drinking Water Act will drop the standard level even lower, to 12 ppb.

Valentine stressed that the alert is a “proactive measure” and not an emergency.

“I’m pleased the state has taken a more aggressive posture with testing and reporting lead and copper in our communities as we all work to ensure our residents have confidence in the water coming out of their taps,” Mayor Patty Bordman said in a prepared statement. “In Birmingham, it is important to know the source of our water and the process used to treat it have not changed. I would encourage anyone with questions to visit our website for further information.”

White Lake Township also exceeded acceptable levels of lead in its drinking water samples, and with the more sensitive testing being used by the EGLE, Valentine said he suspects more communities will yield similar results as sampling continues.

Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash said in a prepared statement that his office is ready to help Birmingham and White Lake Township with their public education efforts, spreading the word about ways to reduce lead ingestion, like using water filters, running taps before water use and, most importantly, advising residents how to have lead service lines replaced.

“The lead level exceedances found in Birmingham and White Lake will trigger further investigation to determine the source of exposure as well as significant public education efforts. Though we only operate 17 drinking water systems in Oakland County, the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office will work with all Oakland County communities in their efforts to educate the public and develop their responses. We stand ready to help,” said Nash in a press release.

Newly appointed Oakland County Executive David Coulter echoed Nash, adding that the county plans to distribute water filters approved by the National Science Foundation to at-risk households in need.

Qualifying households must have at least:

• A child under the age of 18 living there.

• A child under the age of 18 spending several hours every week at least three months of the year there.

• A pregnant woman living there.

• Someone in the home receiving WIC benefits or Medicaid insurance.

• Difficulty affording a filter, which costs around $35, and replacement cartridges, which cost around $15.

“The quality of our drinking water is paramount, and we stand ready to support our local communities with these and future test results,” Coulter said in a press release. “Oakland County Health Division is working with communities to help them comply with revised lead rules while also distributing NSF-certified water filters to qualified households and educating the public.”

Coulter reminded residents that the Oakland County Health Division has a certified laboratory to test residents’ water and answer questions via phone about drinking water safety and the effects of lead. The division’s Nurse on Call hotline operates 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and can be reached at (800) 848-3355.

Take action to prevent lead exposure
Flush your cold-water pipes by running the water for approximately five minutes before use. The longer the water has been sitting in the pipes, the more lead it may contain. You can fill containers for later use after the flushing process.

Install a water filter that is certified for lead removal. Check and confirm that the packaging materials in the filter are certified for lead removal by NSF International at

Use bottled water for drinking and cooking. Commercially prepared bottled water meets federal and state standards for drinking water. Boiling water will not remove lead.

Clean aerators, the small attachments at the top of faucets that regulate water flow. They can accumulate small particles of lead in their screens. Remove and sanitize aerators monthly.