A Detroit tenant’s search for clear drinking water

By Meghan Rutigliano

This article is republished here with permission from Planet Detroit.

This story comes from Planet Detroit’s Neighborhood Reporting Lab, where community reporters write about health and climate issues in their neighborhoods. Neighborhood Reporting Lab is supported by the Americana and Kresge Foundations.

When I moved to Detroit, the clean lines of Mies Van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park, along with its proximity to the Dequindre Cut, Eastern Market and the Detroit River, drew me in. But when I moved into my new apartment, I encountered an ironic twist: pristine architecture combined with not-so-pristine drinking water.

My journey into the depths of domestic water quality began innocently enough, with a friend’s casual comment about the peculiar taste of my water. This sip of concern led me through a river of discovery about what’s flowing out of my taps and how other Detroiters can navigate similar currents.

Read on for an inexpensive, DIY solution that will make your tap water look and taste better almost immediately, and the self-discovery that left me wanting more for renters in the city of Detroit.

Do-it-yourself testing of drinking water quality: observations at the tap

Could my apartment in Lafayette Park, a bastion of Bauhaus modernism, have questionable innards that don’t match its polished exterior?

To demystify the pipes in my building, I consulted Elin Warn Betanzo, a water quality expert who was instrumental in uncovering the Flint water crisis. She suggested a simple, cost-effective test to assess the cloudiness of my tap water.

The first thing Betanzo thought of: could my drinking water contain lead?

“Most of our plumbing contains some lead,” Betanzo warned, laying the groundwork for my research.

She advised: “Start simple: observe, taste and photograph your water. Let it sit and see if the clouds clear or particles settle.”

Using clear cups for visibility, I documented the cloud cover with large, persistent bubbles and floating particles, capturing evidence for both my landlord and Betanzo.

An aerator lighting

Betanzo pushed me toward a revelation at my kitchen sink: the aerator. This modest screen, which fits snugly on the end of the tap, saves water and blocks harmful particles such as lead.

“If particulate matter is pushed around the water pipes, it can get stuck in the aerator screen,” she said. Closer inspection of my faucet revealed that it was missing an aerator, preventing contaminants from entering my glass.

A quick installation by my landlord’s maintenance team, a process that took less than 30 seconds, made an immediate and dramatic improvement in the quality of my water.

After the aerator was installed, my water looked clearer. The clouds cleared after just a few minutes and I couldn’t detect any floating particles.

It turns out that this unsung hero mixes air into the water stream and blocks harmful particles like lead. It only costs $5 to $15 and installs faster than you can boil a pot of water. It’s a no-brainer and something every renter in Detroit should ask of their landlord. And if they don’t respond, you can buy one at a hardware store. I also now have an aerator installed in my bathroom.

Betanzo warned me that it is critical for me to clean the aerators monthly, especially for buildings with older plumbing like mine. This is critical to ensure that the aerator improves – not worsens – water quality.

We delve deeper into the drinking water drama

Was the aerator a miracle cure? Almost.

After installation, the water clarity improved dramatically, reassuring me of its safety. But as Betanzo warned, clear water can still harbor invisible threats like lead.

She elaborated on the pipe materials likely in my building: “It’s probably a combination of galvanized steel, copper pipes and, where there have been recent repairs, probably some plastic pipes as well.”

She also told me that valves, fixtures and faucets usually contain brass, which can lead to high lead levels.

The city estimates that there are more than 80,000 lead pipes supplying drinking water to Detroit residents. Single-family homes built before 1945 are most likely to be affected. The Detroit Water and Sewage Department is actively working on its replacement.

But trying to navigate DWSD’s drinking water testing protocol was a different story. While installing an aerator solved the problem from a taste and visual perspective, I still wanted to get a water test from the city.

Armed with only vague confirmation from my building maintenance staff that my pipes were not lead, I faced bureaucratic hurdles that seemed insurmountable to apartment dwellers like me.

To qualify for a free test offered by the city, a resident must demonstrate plumbing skills – impossible without deeper knowledge or access to the building’s infrastructure.

The process was difficult and fraught with requests for details such as meter readings and pipe material.

“The system was not built with apartment residents in mind,” Betanzo said, demonstrating systemic oversight that leaves tenants particularly exposed to potential water problems and without direct support from DWSD.

The sampling protocol is based on state and federal requirements – and these protocols are focused on single-family homes.” Without being able to prove that I had lead pipes, and without direct access to the water meter readings that DWSD asks for on their water test request form, I was unable to request a test directly from the city.

Still looking for clarity

Although the aerator addressed my immediate concerns, questions about water safety remain. Greater advocacy for accessible testing and broader education about drinking water management in Detroit remains necessary.

As I begin to advocate for transparency and safety in urban drinking water systems, I encourage my fellow Detroiters to turn on that aerator, fill your glass and make sure your water is as clean, clear and tasty as it can be.

In a city celebrated for its resilience, ensuring safe, clean water for all must be a shared priority.

This story isn’t just about one tenant’s journey to crystal clear waters. It’s a call to action for all Detroiters to understand the fluids that fuel us – literally. It’s an invitation to become more aqua-savvy, ask probing questions about what’s lurking in our pipes and push for transparency and high standards from those who manage our water resources.


Request a Lead Test from DWSD here, or order a test kit for home use. Read more about Detroit’s drinking water and lead in plumbing here.

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Featured image: As an apartment dweller, getting answers about my drinking water in Detroit hasn’t been easy. Photo by Meghan Rutigliano.