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8 things Michiganders should know about our drinking water

"An image of a person leaning over a sink staring at a faucet. UMSI logo in the corner."

Tuesday, 11/14/2023

How much do you know about the water that comes out of your faucet? 

When most people fill up a glass of water under the tap, they think, “If it looks and smells OK, it’s OK to drink,” says Kris Donaldson, clean water public advocate for Michigan. 

But you can’t see, taste or smell many contaminants, including lead. 

Donaldson’s office was created in the wake of the Flint water crisis to serve as a resource for the public. She spoke with students at the University of Michigan School of Information as part of the school’s theme year on water conservation and access

An aerial view of an auditorium filled with students. Kris Donaldson stands behind a podium addressing the audience. A projector screen reads 'Infrastructure.'
Kris Donaldson delivers a talk on key drinking water issues to UMSI students.

Over the course of the semester, UMSI students in SI 501 Contextual Inquiry and Consulting Foundations are investigating drinking water-related issues in Michigan — including contamination, accessibility and affordability — to propose novel solutions. “Drinking water is an important, complex, interesting social problem,” says Melissa Chalmers, lecturer in information. “We will build upon that to help students understand why it’s an information problem.”

While community drinking water in Michigan is strictly regulated and tested, Donaldson says many contamination issues occur at the household level. The good news: A few practical tips can keep you safe. 

  1. Check the age of your faucet.

    Unlike other contaminants, lead rarely occurs naturally in lakes and rivers. Typically, it enters drinking water through the corrosion of lead-based materials in household plumbing — including faucets. “Inside the nice, shiny chrome faucet are pieces of brass, and that brass actually has lead in it,” Donaldson says. “Lead is fundamentally a component to some of our plumbing pieces.” Faucets sold before 2014 may contain up to 8 percent lead even if they are labeled "lead-free."  Those that were manufactured in 2014 or later are certified to contain 0.25% lead or less.
     
  2. Get it moving.

    Water is often called the universal solvent, capable of dissolving more substances than any other liquid. When it stands for hours in household pipes that contain contaminants like lead, water collects those contaminants. “Really no matter where you live, my personal message to you — no matter what kind of plumbing you have in your home — is to get the water moving,” Donaldson says. If a faucet hasn’t been turned on in several hours, let your water run from the cold water tap for 15-30 seconds before consuming it, or 3-5 minutes if you have a lead service line. Every six months, Donaldson recommends unscrewing your faucet aerator — a small screen that catches debris — and cleaning it to remove any lead particles that may have accumulated.  
  3. Only use cold water from the faucet for drinking and cooking.

    There is a reason you shouldn’t use hot water from the faucet to make tea or to speed up boiling a pot of water for pasta. Hot water is more corrosive, so it’s likely to collect more contaminants as it sits in a house’s pipes. Always let your water run cold before you use it for drinking, cooking or making baby formula. 

  4.  Use a certified water filter. 

    For added protection from contaminants like lead, use a water filter certified to reduce lead in drinking water. Look for filters that are tested and certified to standards NSF/ANSI 53 for lead reduction and NSF/ANSI 42 for particulate reduction.  

  5. Bottled water isn’t necessarily better. 

    If you’re unsure about the safety of your municipal water, you might reach for bottled water as a “safer” alternative — but this is a misconception, according to Donaldson. Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and may not have as much oversight as tap water, which is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act and has to be tested, filtered and disinfected. Bottled water is also more expensive than tap water and has an environmental impact that is 3,500 times greater than tap water. 
     
  6. Well water works differently.

    “If you are part of a municipality and you’re on a public water supply, then your water is being tested for contaminants,” Donaldson says. If you’re among the 30% of Michigan residents who drink from a private well, that’s not the case. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recommends testing well water at least once for lead and copper; every year for coliform bacteria, nitrate and nitrite; and every three to five years for arsenic. If your well is in need of testing, call your local health department. They can help you determine the appropriate schedule and provide sampling bottles and instructions. 
     
  7. Report drinking water concerns. 

    If you have a concern about your drinking water quality — including appearance, odor, pressure problems and leaks — you can report it to the state using a quick online form, or by calling the Drinking Water Hotline at 844-934-1315. All concerns are forwarded to the appropriate agency for follow-up, which can include water sampling and evaluation. 
     
  8. Michigan takes a proactive stance on PFAS.

    Thinking too much about drinking water can feel overwhelming. We’ll end on some good news: Michigan has taken a proactive approach to addressing PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) contamination, implementing regulations that are more stringent than federal guidelines. PFAS represent a group of more than 3,000 chemicals that collect in our bodies and the environment and have been linked to health issues including cancer. Municipal water in Michigan is already sampled for PFAS, and the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy conducts testing and oversees cleanup efforts. 

Donaldson hopes to continue to improve statewide education and outreach, ensuring information reaches the people who need it most. 

Abigail McFee

LEARN MORE

Read about UMSI’s theme year on water conservation and access

Find resources offered by the Office of the Clean Water Public Advocate