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18,000 free water filters aim to curb potential lead exposure in Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – About 18,000 free water filters will be distributed this summer to Kent County residents who may be at risk of some level of lead in their drinking water and are unable to afford a filter.

The pilot project, announced Wednesday, June 21, by state, county and Grand Rapids officials, doesn’t come in response to a specific incident or concern about increased levels of lead in drinking water.

Instead, officials say the move is a proactive effort to add another layer of lead exposure protection and raise awareness that lead service lines leading to homes and lead pipes and older faucets and fittings in the home can be a lead exposure risk.

It’s part of a larger effort by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) to reduce lead exposure that could be occurring through drinking water.

“I want to be clear: nothing has changed in your water. And this recommendation is not being made in response to a particular safety concern,” said Sarah Lyon-Callo, interim senior deputy director of Public Health Administration at MDHHS. “We consider this approach similar to taking fire safety precautions by having smoke detectors installed or having a fire extinguisher in your home. You’re having those things there just in case.”

Officials are recommending that Kent County residents, even if they aren’t eligible for the free filters, use a certified lead-reducing drinking water filter if they know their home has, or are uncertain whether it has: lead or galvanized plumbing; a lead service line carrying water from the street to their residence; or faucets and fittings sold before 2014.

Water filters marked with the following certifications on the packaging are effective: NSF/ANSI Standard 53 for lead reduction and NSF/ANSI Standard 42 for particulate reduction (Class I).

Municipal water in the county is tested regularly for lead and is not the exposure source. Instead, lead plumbing and service lines are where it can leach into drinking water.

The county health department has released a video to help residents determine the type of plumbing in their home. Grand Rapids has a map online of lead service lines in the city. Grand Rapids has replaced about 4,000 lead services lines, with 20,000 remaining and 3,000 more being replaced by the end of next year.

“Knowledge and action are formidable tools in our fight against lead,” said Kent County Administrative Health Officer Adam London. “It is good common sense for residents living in homes with specific conditions for lead to leach in the drinking water to use a certified lead-reducing filter.”

Related: MSU, Corewell Health team up to study the heath effects of lead poisoning in Grand Rapids

The pilot project is a partnership between the Kent County Health Department, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Grand Rapids. State health department officials say they eventually hope to do something similar in other communities.

To receive a free filter, residents in the county have to meet certain eligibility criteria. First, the residence must have a lead services line or any lead plumbing.

All of the following conditions must be met as well:

  • A child under 18 or a pregnant woman lives in the home
  • A member of the household is enrolled in Medicaid or WIC
  • The household is unable to afford a filter

County officials estimate about 7,500 residences in Grand Rapids and another 11,000 residences in Kent County but outside of Grand Rapids are eligible. Residents can choose between a pitcher with a filter or a filter faucet attachment.

Distribution is starting as early as Thursday, June 22. The two distribution sites are the MDHHS building at 124 M.L.K. Jr. St. SW in Grand Rapids and Kentwood Public Schools’ Facilities and Operations building at 6160 Valley Lane Drive SE in Kentwood.

People are asked to pre-register and select an appointment time by going to A full list of distribution dates and times can be found on the website, with more dates being announced at a later time.

Those without internet access or who need assistance can call 2-1-1.

At a later date, additional water filters will also be given for free to any resident of Grand Rapids’ Third Ward through a $500,000 initiative developed by the city’s public, participatory budgeting process.

More details on that program will be released at a later time. City officials say they don’t want to duplicate efforts or cause confusion with the ongoing filter distribution announced Wednesday.

“We know that the water being delivered to homes in Grand Rapids is safe,” said Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. “But we also recognize that until we’re able to eliminate every potential source of contamination now and in the future, including those inside of the home, interim solutions like filters can play a critical role in helping to keep our residents safe.”

Lead dust, not lead-tainted water, is the main source of lead exposure among children in Grand Rapids. The 49507 ZIP code, which encompasses much of southeast Grand Rapids, had the highest percentage of lead-poisoned children in the state in 2015.

The dust primarily comes from cracked, chipped or peeling lead-based paint that hasn’t been maintained. It can also be created by not using best practices during renovation projects that disturb the paint and failing to clean up. Lead-based paint was used in homes up until 1978, the year lead was banned in paint.

The city recently enacted stricter rules around lead paint and dust in rental properties in an effort to better protect children from exposure. Under the new rules, landlords are be required to test for often-unseen lead dust in their properties, and clean it up, every time they need to renew the city certificate that allows them to rent out the property.

Lessening the risk

County and state health officials have a number of tips for residents to reduce the chance of lead exposure in drinking water beyond installing a filter:

  • Boiling water doesn’t remove lead.
  • Use cold, filtered water for rinsing food and cooking, making baby formula and brushing teeth. Lead dissolves more easily in hot water.
  • Unfiltered water can be used for washing hands, showering and bathing; washing dishes and doing laundry and household cleaning.
  • Water should be run for several minutes each morning or after it hasn’t been used for several hours so as to bring new water into the home’s pipes.
  • Run water for several seconds or until it goes from room temperature to cold before using the water for drinking or cooking.
  • Remove faucet aerators – the small attachment at the tip of the faucet that filters and softens the flow of water – every six months and clean them out. Small particles may accumulate in the screens.
  • Lastly, remove older plumbing, pipes and faucets. Lead pipes are more likely to be found in homes built before 1986. Faucets and fittings sold before 2014 may contain up to 8% lead, even if they are marked lead-free.

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