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Residents of Benton Harbor, Michigan, are being warned not to use tap water in the city. Dangerous amounts of toxic lead have been found in water pipes over the past three years in the majority-Black city. 

Roughly 9,800 people reside in Benton Harbor, with 84% of citizens identifying themselves as Black or African-American. Due to lack of updates to existing infrastructure, buried lead service connections between the Benton Harbor water main pipes and residents’ homes have been found across a majority of the city.

These connections drive toxic heavy metal-filled water into residential and commercial spaces. Environmental advocates note that lead-filled water has been leaching from the main water supply in Benton Harbor since at least 2018. 

State sends bottled water to Benton Harbor residents

In fact, activists have filed emergency petitions with the Environmental Protection Agency requesting a federal response to the crisis. Lisel Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), Michigan’s agency which supervises water utilities, noted the situation is “high-level urgency” and pleaded with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer for support for the citizens of Benton Harbor. 

benton harbor flint lead in drinking water

In response, the state is sending bottled water for citizens to use for drinking, cooking, and brushing their teeth. Prior to the government response, city volunteers with the community water council were providing water to residents — using their own money.

The news about Benton Harbor comes seven years after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, another mostly Black community. In that community, state officials were charged after they attempted to cover up the lead levels for years even as the health of children was being affected. Officials working directly under former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder recently appeared in court for a motion hearing.

No amount of lead is safe for children

The Centers for Disease Control notes that because “no safe blood level has been identified for young children, all sources of lead exposure for children should be controlled or eliminated. EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero because lead can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels.”

Meanwhile, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 51 percent of the nearly 6,000 water service lines, “are known to contain lead, are known to be galvanized lines previously connected to lead, or are of unknown material but likely to contain lead.” 

Benton Harbor residents were shocked when the information about lead in their drinking water came to light. “We didn’t know we had lead in our water until probably a month ago,” said Willie Mae Jones, who has been drinking tap water for her entire life, along with her family.

“This could have been prevented — all of this,” confirmed Benton Harbor water council president Rev. Edward Pinkney, one of several spiritual leaders in the community. “Three years of this is ridiculous.”

Erika Stone is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, and a graduate assistant at Schusterman Library. A Chess Memorial Scholar, she has a B.A. in Psychology...