It’s something that’s easily taken for granted until it is no longer accessible.
“Put that water up to your nose and tell me you’d drink it,” says Mary Smith, Ironwood Resident.
The city of Ironwood confirms that residents have been dealing with higher than average levels of iron and manganese in their water system for years.
“The city has had their well fields for decades,” explains Scott Erickson, City Manager of Ironwood. “There’s six wells that the city pumps water from to the community and there’s been manganese in the well water ever since they’ve been drilled, decades ago.”
Manganese is commonly found in the environment.
“It’s a metal that occurs naturally and it’s a nutrient so you actually need manganese in your diet,” explains Eric Oswald, Director of the Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).
But how much is too much? According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the health advisory level for infants under 12 months old is 300 parts per billion (ppb) and for adults, it is 1000 ppb.
“The EPA does testing periodically. They test water supplies around the country for contaminants they think may be of concern and in this latest round of this monitoring manganese is one of the chemicals or contaminants that we’re testing for,” says Oswald.
This testing is what tipped state officials off to higher than normal manganese levels in the Ironwood water. According to EGLE, one of the city wells tested with high levels of manganese. Officials told Local 3 News that well has been shut off.
Due to growing concern from residents, additional testing was also done.
“The Western U.P. Health Department came out and did the sampling, again to basically take an independent look at the system,” says Scott Erickson. “Just to make sure that it’s independent and unbiased.”
Local 3 News was able to obtain a copy of the test results and verified with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) that all residential tests came in well below the adult health advisory level of 1000 ppb, though it’s not clear if those homes had some sort of filtration system in place. However, some tests were close to the infant health advisory of 300 ppb.
“The ones that we’re most concerned about, particularly in this area, is infants. Since their bodies are still developing, they may not be able to get rid of the manganese if they have too much,” says Lynn Sutfin, Public Information Officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “The recommendation is that we’re using bottled water for infants less than 12 months.”
But for some residents, that was not enough.
Jon Hawes has a child just under 2 years old. He did qualify for bottled water because his son was considered too old to be affected by the manganese in the water.
“We can’t be giving him that water,” says Hawes, “I have to be a vanguard on a daily basis because I don’t want him in contact with the things that I can’t explain.”
Tara Mayer suffers from multiple sclerosis and also has concerns about the effects of drinking the city water.
“For someone who has a compromised immune system, I think the biggest…the biggest issue with that is I’m scared for my health,” says Mayer. “I don’t know what I’m putting in my body. I don’t know if it’s going to complicating things further for me.”
Due to concerns from the residents, the city is now allowing any resident who is worried free bottled water.
Four of the tests completed by the health department were sampled from an area of downtown Ironwood where the fire hydrants had been recently used. Those results ranged from 320 ppb to 1700 ppb, all over the health advisory level.
The city says these high results are due to the hydrants being used.
“Then the system gets stirred up because that manganese does settle into the mains, and that’s what they’re seeing,” says Scott Erickson.
As we continue with the story of the Ironwood residents…
“To me, the big story about this is how the city has responded,” says Steve Frank.
We hear from people, like Steve Frank, about what they want the city to do.
For part two of this investigative series, click here.
For part three of this investigative series, click here.