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Benton Harbor, Michigan, residents urged to use bottled water due to lead concerns

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday recommended residents of Benton Harbor rely on bottled water instead of tap water as a precautionary measure while various agencies work to decrease the risk of lead exposure. Activist groups say lead in the city's drinking water has been a "persistent, widespread, and severe public health crisis" for at least the past three years.

"Protecting the health and safety of Benton Harbor residents is a top priority," the state health department director Elizabeth Hertel said in a statement. "We've listened to the community's concerns, we are recommending that residents use bottled water for cooking, drinking and brushing teeth."

Under the advisory, bottled water will be made available at various distribution sites throughout the city. More than 4,500 cases of bottled water have been delivered to Benton Harbor to date, with another 15,500 cases expected to be delivered within coming days, according to the Michigan health department. 

Benton Harbor residents can still use unfiltered water for bathing, cleaning, and washing hands, dishes, and clothes, the department said. 

Health officials said free bottled water "will be provided as long as needed" while the Environmental Protection Agency conducts a study on filter effectiveness. The EPA did not say when the study is expected to be completed. 

"Cooperation, collaboration and coordination are the key ingredients moving forward to replace lead service lines and ensure that every resident is protected as we work to solve the water issues in Benton Harbor," Mayor Marcus Muhammad said. 

The initiative comes following pressure from environmental and public advocacy organizations, who say the drinking water in the city presents "an imminent and substantial endangerment to Benton Harbor residents."

On September 9, organizations including the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, Flint Rising and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition filed a petition to the EPA, demanding "immediate action to address the public health emergency."

According to the petition, the predominantly Black population in Benton Harbor has dealt with high levels of lead in drinking water since the summer of 2018. The city is the only water system in Michigan to exceed the EPA's lead action level threshold six consecutive times and has not had its lead service lines in the city replaced in years, violating federal and state requirements, the organizations wrote. 

"Benton Harbor's residents are not only subjected to a disproportionately high level of lead exposure from a variety of sources beyond their drinking water but also often lack access to high-quality health care and are exposed to a wide array of other threats that can exacerbate the negative health effects associated with lead exposure," the petition reads. 

The EPA says there is no known safe level of lead in a child's blood and that the negative health effects of drinking water with a lead presence include behavioral issues, a lower IQ, hyperactivity, slowed growth, anemia, cardiovascular effects, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems. 

The groups allege the EPA, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and other agencies have consistently failed to ensure timely action in responding to the high lead levels. 

Following the petition's release, EGLE said on September 30 that it was working to permanently reduce the excessive lead levels in the water by replacing all lead service lines within the city. The agency also said free bottled drinking water would be made available to Benton Harbor residents on that day.

A representative for MDHHS and EGLE told CBS News on Thursday that they "are committed to working with the City of Benton Harbor to reduce lead in their drinking water" and that they "have been working collaboratively with the City of Benton Harbor since 2018 when lead was found in the city's drinking water at levels above state standards."

The EPA told CBS News that certified and properly installed water filters are "very effective in reducing lead concentrations in drinking water" and that filters have been made available and will continue to be made available by the State.

"The agency will continue to be involved to support and monitor the effectiveness of the immediate interventions and development of long-term solutions in Benton Harbor," a representative for the EPA said. 

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