▶ Watch Video: Water crisis plagues Michigan city

Thanksgiving for the Brewer family looked different this year. Monique Brewer typically cooks collard greens for them, but this year, she emptied several water bottles into a pot to boil them, instead of using water from her sink.

But getting the water is half the battle. The 39-year-old resident in Benton Harbor, Michigan, must leave her medical assistant job early to pick up the cases from a city-funded distribution site in time. 

“Do you know how many bottles of water it takes to make a pot of water to make some food?” Monique told CBS News. “I went through a 12-pack of water just for my greens to boil. It’s rough out here.”

Since October, health officials have urged residents in Benton Harbor, a mostly Black and lower-income city, to rely on bottled water for daily tasks like cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula as officials investigate the presence of lead in the city’s drinking water. Officials say there’s been a high lead presence in the city’s water since at least 2018.

“I’m so used to getting up in the morning, grabbing my toothbrush, cutting that water on and running my toothbrush underneath that water,” Monique says. “But actually at night, I have to put a bottle of water in the bathroom to brush my teeth.” 

Volunteers prepare bottled water to be distributed to residents in Benton Harbor on October 21, 2021.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Monique says she sometimes forgets to place her nightly water bottle in the bathroom to brush her teeth, and worries about the negative effects that lead consumption has on her health. “It’s instinct,” she said.

The Environmental Protection Agency says there is no known safe level of lead in drinking water because the toxic metal “can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels.” Ingesting water with lead can lead to behavioral issues, a lower IQ and slowed growth for children as well as increased blood pressure, hypertension, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems for adults.

Brewer questions the city’s timing of issuing its water bottle advisory. “My worry is that the damage has already been done,” Brewer said. “It was so abrupt, like, so suddenly that they told us to stop drinking this.”

Immanuel Williams, another resident there, said he had doubts about the city’s drinking water long before the city formally recognized the problem. 

“I’ve never trusted the drinking water,” said Williams, who is the current pastor of New Birth Apolistic Church. “So, you have to spend extra money to purchase the bottled water just to have drinking water. There’s a time to where it becomes a habit. It becomes a way of life. You don’t put no extra thought into it.”

Williams previously worked at Harbor Area School District as the manager of operation facilities between 2016 to 2018. He said he began to question the city’s water quality during his time working with the district — his department’s water quality reports showed high levels of lead despite recent renovations.

“We knew that it couldn’t have been the water plant because it was newly renovated and so what the tests uncovered was that the main source of lead in the water was coming from the infrastructure as far as the pipes at that time,” Williams said. 

Ambie Bell delivers water to a resident in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Williams said he replaced his own home’s water lines himself and monitors his church’s water quality. But despite his precautions, the pastor said he and his congregants still utilize water bottles for consumption out of precaution. 

“I try to do everything I can not to put my family, or anyone that I have responsibility of, at risk of anything,” he said. 

In September, advocacy groups filed a petition to the EPA, saying Benton Harbor has faced a “persistent, widespread, and severe public health crisis” since at least the summer of 2018. 

The groups accused city and state officials of addressing the crisis with the “urgency it requires” and said Benton Harbor is the state’s only water system to exceed the EPA’s lead threshold six consecutive times. They said the “elevated levels of lead exposure and health vulnerabilities for people of color are not accidental.”

“Now, the history of racial discrimination and segregation in the Benton Harbor metro area is manifesting itself with its majority Black population being subjected to high levels of lead in drinking water for a prolonged period of time,” the groups wrote. “Such lead toxicity is a source of ecological inequity by race and a pathway through which racial inequity literally gets into the body.”

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer later vowed to take an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to the city’s water crisis. In October, the state set a goal to replace all of Benton Harbor’s lead service lines within 18 months. 

The state health and human services department began supplying residents with free water bottles and water filters in October at distribution sites throughout the city. As of November 23, More than 165,000 cases of bottled water have been supplied to residents and homebound residents have opportunities to arrange water delivery, the department said

But some wonder if the city’s short-term solutions are too little and too late. 

Alvin Brewer, Monique’s brother, has lived in Benton Harbor for 19 years. He remembers helping his late mother assemble water filters on her home’s faucets in 2019 as word about the city’s water quality spread throughout the community. 

“My mother would cook with the water, you know like any mother would, making different dishes, everything like that,” Alvin said. “It makes me wonder, did some of that stuff contribute to my mother’s health? Stuff like that is in the back of my mind. By her drinking this water, did it exacerbate her issues and make it worse?” 

From left: Monique, Alvin and Austin Brewer with their mother, Correen Wilburn.

Alvin Brewer

Alvin questions the role that race has to play in the city’s water crisis. Benton Harbor, a city of 9,700 residents, is 85% Black. More than 45% of residents there live in poverty.

“Race has something to do with it. I’m just going to be honest,” Alvin said. He compared Benton Harbor’s infrastructure to the neighboring town St. Joseph, which has a majority-White population. 

Mayor Marcus Muhammad says he “inherited” the city’s drinking water problem, and that it was first identified in 2018 under former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder‘s administration. 

“When you inherit things that have to be corrected, you know, there’s circumstances that are associated and come with that that you just can’t control,” Muhammad said. “However, you’re responsible at this time to address the problem and sometimes it takes more time than what others may perceive.”

Muhammad said he first was alerted of an excess of lead in the city’s water in October of 2018 when a city manager notified the town’s council that eight out of 30 homes exceeded the lead limit of 15 parts per billion. He said county officials “immediately” alerted the community and held a press conference the following day.

“We thought we did a pretty good job of letting the people know,” he said. 

Residents prepare bottled water in Benton Harbor on October 21, 2021.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

As Muhammad faces recall petitions from frustrated residents who question the city’s timing on taking action, Muhammad says he “can’t get saddled down” with them, and instead focuses on remedying the city’s issues. 

“For people to say, you know, ‘the mayor, he concealed, he hid, he didn’t tell.’ I’m a father of seven. My youngest daughter is eight years old and I live in the city,” he said. “So, there’s no way that I would do anything to harm anybody, especially children in this city.”

He applauded Whitmer, the current governor, and the federal government for stepping up to help Benton Harbor. 

But as the EPA investigates the city’s water and before the city’s service lines are replaced, the mayor said his family will continue to follow the state health department’s guidelines and rely on filters and water bottles. 

“I’ve always drank bottled water,” said the mayor, who grew up in Benton Harbor. “Just my preference because there are other chemicals in the water, chlorine and fluoride that I don’t personally agree with. So, you know, bottled water has been a norm for me.” 

Residents like Monique will continue to wash off their produce and meat with multiple bottles of water. She’ll continue to haul in the heavy cases during her lunch breaks and try to make it to distribution sites before they close. 

“When I see somebody put water in my yard, I’m very thankful for it, because it saves me a trip from going to stand in the line,” she said. “I had instances with people dropping water off and you hear them walking down the street with the flatbed of water yelling, ‘free water.'”

She says it’s her community and family that has kept her in the city for her entire life.

A resident walks to the Benton Harbor High School with bottled water on October 21, 2021.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP