Benton Harbor’s water crisis prompts concerns about testing adult residents for lead from The Detroit News
December 28, 2021
By Leonard N. Fleming
Benton Harbor — Lois Clay has failing kidneys and is on dialysis, and to make matters worse, the 58-year-old resident is dealing with lead in her body, too.
Clay tested positive for an elevated level of the toxic substance in 2018 — likely a result, she speculated, of her penchant for chewing ice frozen from Benton Harbor’s drinking water that has for three straight years exceeded state and federal limits for lead.
Clay, who lives with her sister, Lovia, is furious, especially since she felt the city and state governments didn’t adequately warn her and other city residents about the elevated lead in the city’s water system. State officials began delivering free bottled water to residents in late September.
“I’m upset because someone should have noticed that this was going on and taken care of it sooner — the powers that be,” Clay said. “I already have a kidney issue, and I don’t need anything else to affect my body.”
As the drinking water crisis has made national headlines, Michigan health officials along with Berrien County and Benton Harbor leaders have been encouraging residents to get tested for lead in their bodies. There have been regular testing clinics and fairs in the city since October. But it isn’t yet clear whether the tainted water is resulting in more elevated lead results in the city’s residents.
A blood lead level is considered elevated if it is 3.5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) or higher for children, which was lowered from the prior standard of 5 micrograms in October, and 5 micrograms for adults, as recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC has long said no amount of lead is good for the human body. Exposure to sustained levels of lead can cause a range of problems such as abdominal pain, constipation, memory loss, pain in the hands or weakness, as well as risks for high blood pressure, heart and kidney disease and reduced fertility.
The state has focused blood lead testing on young children and pregnant women because of the developmental harm the toxic substance can inflict but has recommended residents see their primary care doctor for testing. The state health department said it has worked with the Berrien County Health Department and InterCare Family Health Network, among others, to hold 10 community events from Aug. 25 to Dec. 4, resulting in 172 people being tested — most of them adults.
The leading way people are exposed to lead is through paint, dust and soil, “not necessarily in the water,” said Guy Miller, the acting health officer and epidemiologist for the Berrien County Health Department.
Other medical professionals are studying the issue and are pressing for adults to be tested considering that the lead exceedances started in 2018 and might have been present before then given the many lead service lines in the city.
But Dr. Don Tynes, an internal medicine and pediatric physician in Benton Harbor who is treating Clay and others with lead exposure, said no one has until recently been testing and studying the exposure in adults. This was a key failure during the Flint water crisis, he said, when elevated levels of lead in children’s blood studied by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha belatedly prodded the state into action in late September 2015.
Tynes wants to do testing to determine the source or sources of the lead exposures, particularly considering the elevated lead levels in drinking water.
“We’ve been negligent in monitoring and tracking lead exposure,” he said.
What state numbers show
There has been a zigzag pattern to the rise in elevated lead levels in Benton Harbor children since the lead exceedances began three years ago, according to state Department of Health and Human Services statistics.
In 2018, eight Benton Harbor children tested at 5 micrograms or higher, which was 2.6% of the 309 kids sampled. In 2019, 15 children had elevated levels, or 6.6% of the 226 kids sampled.
But last year, the number of kids with elevated levels fell compared to the year prior, though the percentage remained above the level in 2018. In 2020, there were five children above the federally recommended level, or 4% of the 125 kids sampled.
The testing numbers do not provide information about where children got exposed to lead, according to the state health department.
“The number of children tested has not remained constant, which makes assessing year-to-year trends difficult,” state Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said.
The number of tests for lead in Benton Harbor and other kinds of tests statewide fell in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sutfin said.
Some agencies — such as InterCare, a federally qualified health center — have been testing hundreds of people in Berrien County and Benton Harbor since 2018, data that is sent to state officials.
While the availability of lead testing has increased, the COVID-19 pandemic initially curtailed people’s willingness to go out and get tested, Berrien County’s Miller said. He hopes the situation changes, especially given the attention to the drinking water crisis.
“Everybody has been speaking, go get a test. And that’s really to drive up those numbers,” Miller said. “Most lead exposure, even if we’re seeing it in mom or dad or adults, that’s going to come from if dad works at a battery factory. And you’ll find that the data supports this — the journals and what you find on lead exposure is going to support that kind of theory.”
Elevated levels of lead in water likely won’t translate to higher lead levels “and that’s exactly what we want to prove, and what we’re still ongoing to make sure that this is not the case,” he added.
“Right now, it does not appear there’s a correlation with the amount of lead in water” and the levels of lead in blood samples, Miller said. “… In order to firm those numbers up, we need to test more people.”
Doc: Not enough adults tested
Clay was retested in December, and her level of lead dropped to a Level 4 from a Level 5 in 2018, or 4 micrograms from 5 micrograms, Tynes said. A Level 5 reading is at the threshold of the CDC’s lead exceedance in the body.
“When you find lead in an adult between (levels) one and four, that is a significant amount of exposure because of the body mass of the adult. And it should be absorbed in the body, so you shouldn’t be seeing it,” he said.
Tynes, who has been testing Benton Harbor residents daily in his office, also teamed up with researchers from Wayne Health Mobile Unit to do additional lead testing in adults and children. As of last week, Tynes had tested 139 patients in his office. Among his findings: one patient tested at 10 micrograms, two at 4 micrograms, six at 3 micrograms, nine at 2 micrograms and 14 at 1 microgram.
Tynes said what he is doing is documenting exposure because others are downplaying that aspect. Some dismiss lower levels of lead and don’t recheck it a few months later, he said.
“If you find a level of one, in three months, recheck it,” said Tynes, referring to the level of micrograms of lead. “If you find a level of 5, we need to check your house and put you on iron supplements. I want to know exposure.”
Tynes said he agrees with other environmental experts that the city’s drinking water was likely contaminated with lead prior to 2018 since testing was done every three years and not every six months as it is now.
Some people testing positive for lead have had no other known lead exposure except to the drinking water, the doctor said. A then-14-year-old resident tested two years ago at a Level 1, Tynes said, and the following year at a Level 2. After the doctor put him on bottled water, the 16-year-old tested at less than a Level 1, he said.
“Start with the obvious source and find others that are contributing to the contamination,” Tynes said. “Some teenagers and adults don’t have any exposure risk except water. It’s time for answers.”
It will be 90 days after testing is done before the state gets more data on trends due to the lead problem in Benton Harbor, Sutfin said. It’s unclear when the testing will be completed.
Meanwhile, lead levels have fallen in Benton Harbor’s drinking water in the latest half-year sampling reported earlier this month but remain at the federal action level, according to state officials.
Water samples from 63 homes from August to November showed the 90th percentile was at 15 parts per billion, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. The city has exceeded the federal standard for three straight years, starting at 22 ppb in 2018 and 24 ppb in the last sampling for the first half of this year.
What residents say
Keesha Jones, 40, has a 4-year-old son, Tristian, who has tested for an elevated level of lead in Tynes’ office. She said she believes the drinking water may be the culprit.
“It makes me very concerned because for him being so young, it can do a whole lot of things to his body,” Jones said. “Not just only him. All of them. Even my grandkids, too.”
Jones said her son has “a whole lot of behavior problems” that have developed over the past two years. The whole family used to drink from the tap but stopped a year or so ago when they learned about the lead exceedances, she said. Jones said she hasn’t gotten the lead results for herself, the other children or a grandchild.
“I read up on a lot of stuff myself, what this lead can do to your body and your child,” Jones said. “And when I read up on it, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ So all the things that I’m seeing just came from the lead.”
The county health department does lead testing through the federal WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) program and for children under 6 years old who are tested twice for lead exposure before they age out of the program.
There are two types of lead tests: the needle in the arm vein drawing blood and the capillary test on the finger. Both are good tests, Berrien County’s Miller said, for detecting lead in children.
Donnie Meeks Sr., who is on Benton Harbor’s city council, said he tested at a Level 3 for lead in Tynes’ office after he started having undisclosed health issues. Meeks said he believes it’s likely that lead in the drinking water caused them.
“I used to think it was crazy to be buying bottled water when we had free water,” Meeks said. “But now, guess what? I like that bottled water better.”
Mayor Marcus Muhammad, who recently attended a community health fair at Benton Harbor High School where four people got tested for lead exposure, noted “any exposure to lead we know is not good.”
“Lead testing and water testing is what I’m encouraging,” the mayor said.
While the testing continues, Lois Clay’s older sister, Lovia, 68, said the drinking water could have been addressed much sooner.
“What really makes you angry is that they could have done something about this years ago,” she said. “It didn’t have to get to this because we have people who are supposed to be in charge of monitoring water for the public.”
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