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Benton Harbor has seen a spike in blood lead levels, but it's complicated

Benton Harbor has seen a spike in blood lead levels, but it's complicated

Testing has revealed an increase in elevated blood lead levels among children in the county thats home to Benton Harbor, where the state of Michigan has been distributing bottled water out of concern with lead in municipal water.

However, health officials say they cant establish a connection between the Berrien County data and the Benton Harbor drinking water because of sporadic data on kids in the city itself, which only accounts for 6% of the county population.

Public health advocates such as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Flint have looked at the data, but they claim it is beside the point because lead levels in Benton Harbor have consistently exceeded the action level for lead in water since 2018.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can cause severe harm to children at any age.

Hanna-Attisha, a Flint pediatrician and public health advocate whose work exposed the Flint water crisis, said its too late if you look at the blood lead data.

We dont need additional evidence that theres a problem here, she said.

This is ridiculous. Lead-related frustrations rise as the crisis intensifies.

According to Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) tracking data, the percentage of Berrien County children younger than six with elevated blood lead levels in any test type has increased slightly in the three years since water testing in 2018 began to show lead overdoses in Benton Harbors municipal supply.

Only 2.5 percent, or 39 of the 1,560 tested children, had elevated lead levels in the county in 2018, a record low for the states southwest corner in recent years.

This increase will be 3.8 percent in 2020, or 42 of 1,098 tested children -- an increase in elevated lead prevalence within a smaller sample size due to an overall decrease in testing due primarily to clinic closures, quarantining, and other effects of the COVID-19 epidemic.

According to the 2020 census, Benton Harbor's roughly 9,600 residents, most of them Black, make up about 6 percent of Berrien County' 155,400 residents. There are about 4,000 households in the city, with about 45 percent of the population living in poverty.

According to Berrien County data, 2.8 percent of children under six with blood drawn from a vein tested for elevated lead in 2018 within the city.

In 2019, that number increased to 5.1%, or 11 of 215 tested children, which is the highest level since 2017. In 2020, the percentage dropped to 4.2 percent, or 5 of 119 tested children.

Its not statistically significant changes, said Gillian Conrad, a spokesperson for the Berrien County Health Department, which monitors elevated blood lead levels in at-risk children.

It is very difficult to narrow down those sources of exposure, because in most cases, there are multiple sources that may be an issue, especially when were looking at families that are living in some of these older homes, said Conrad. There are a lot of variables: lead-based paint, lead plumbing, and lead dust in the home. When were looking at that, its very difficult to say, Oh, this is due to the lead in the water when there are so many possible sources at play.

In Benton Harbor, lead drew regulatory attention when the citys 90th percentile testing began showing exceedances of the federal action level of 15 parts-per-billion (ppb). Since then, the levels have remained elevated in each successive testing round.

Individual homes have shown extremely high lead levels this year, with tests at 889, 605, 469, 109, and 107-ppb, according to state data.

Independent experts like Elin Betanzo, a former EPA drinking water engineer who also helped expose the Flint crisis, speculated that Benton Harbor may have begun showing exceedances due to large drops in the customer base relative to the distribution system size, changes in tap sampling procedure after Flint, and increases in home testing sites throughout the city.

Under pressure from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), Benton Harbor did not add corrosion inhibitor until March 2019, when it began adding it under the direction of the state Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

There was no source water change in Benton Harbor, unlike the Flint tragedy. The city continues to draw on Lake Michigan. In Flint, the switch to the river as a water source gave Hanna-Attisha 'a comparison benchmark to use in evaluating blood lead levels in children'. Increasing levels after the switch confirmed that the poisoning was taking place.

However, Hanna-Attisha said that childhood blood lead surveillance isn't an ideal way to show signs of harm in Benton Harbor because the system is not designed to detect exposure to lead in water, which is a problem in large part to infants younger than the initial testing age of 1-year whose parents are using the water to mix baby formula.

Because the blood lead data tends to underestimate exposure, Hanna-Attisha said it can be used to minimize or minimize a lead issue in teh community.

Hanna-Attisha said that lead in blood has a very short detection window. The half-life for detecting a metal in someones blood is 28 days. It doesnt matter whether the exposure was six months ago or a year ago, blood testing doesnT Tell You What the Exposure was.

When we use this blood lead surveillance data when were concerned about a lead-in-water problem, it doesnt tell us the whole story, Hanna-Attisha stated. If anything, its a massive underestimation of the story. Too often, theres a lead in water problem in'some random community' and they look at the blood lead data and are like, Ah, no problem.

Those werent built to pick up lead in water, says the company.

In 2019, the Berrien County Health Department provided free tap faucet filters and replacement cartridges to Benton Harbor residents, according to Conrad. So far, about 2,600 cartridges have gone out, and about a quarter of households have sought replacements.

The Environmental Protection Agency of the United States is presently studying the effectiveness of those filters, and state health authorities anticipate that effort coming to a close soon.

Since Oct. 6, the state has sent over 26,000 cases of bottled water to Benton Harbor, which it cautioned residents to switch off the taps and use distilled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, and mixing baby formula.

In addition to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), local advocacy groups like the Benton Harbor Community Water Council are urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare an emergency and want the state to unambiguously state that the water is unsafe to drink.

After 20 environmental and public advocacy groups filed a petition with the EPA asking for u.s. intervention in the black-majority city, which was under statewide emergency management between 2010 and 2016, the state began to expand its efforts in Benton Harbor in late September, going door-to-door to distribute filters. The state started to go door to door in order to send filters to residents, sending them filters from door one to the other.

Because of poor record-keeping, the city has about 3,000 and 6,000 lead service lines. The states 2022 budget includes $10 million for the replacement of lead lines in Benton Harbor.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children should not be exposed to lead at a dangerous level. Exposure to high concentrations of the toxic metal can result in brain and nervous system damage, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, and hearing and speech difficulties. Exposure to air pollution is linked to a decrease in IQ, decreased attention span, and decreased school performance among schoolchildren.


Wednesday, Oct. 13th, 13:01 a.m.

Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency, 331 Miller Street, 1 3 p.m.

Abundant Life Church, 693 Columbus Avenue, 4 - 6 p.m.

Thursday, Oct. 14th, at 6:30 p.m.

Southwest Michigan Community Action Agency, 331 Miller Street, 4 6 p.m.

Friday, Oct. 15 at 5:00pm.

- Gods Household of Faith, 275 Pipestone Street, 2 6 p.m.

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