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Lead Crisis: Flint Plumber Discovers Poison Pipes in His Own House

Harold Harrington was so busy arranging to install filters in other people's homes, he didn't test his own water until now.

As the water crisis gripped Flint this winter, plumbers union official Harold Harrington was in the vanguard of those offering help, sending hundreds of tradesmen across the city to install filters and faucets for free, hand out lead-testing kits and inspect service lines.

He was so busy coordinating the massive volunteer effort — and wielding a wrench himself — that he never got around to testing the water at his own home. But last week, he finally drew two samples and turned them over to the state lab.

It only took a few days for the bad news to arrive.

On Monday, Harrington, 54, clicked onto the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality website and pulled up a spreadsheet with results for nearly 12,000 homes that have been tested so far.

The entry for his two-story house on the border of the South Side and Downtown was lit up in an alarming bright red.

The level of lead coming through his taps was 151 parts per billion — 10 times above the point at which the federal government says action must be taken. Fewer than 100 homes in Flint had more lead in their water during the latest testing than his home did.

"I was pretty upset," Harrington told NBC News. "If it's 151 now, what the heck was it six months ago?"

Harold Harrington installs a new faucet to accommodate a water filter in a Flint home.Courtesy UA Local 370

The result raised other questions for Harrington, a master plumber who is the business manager for Local 370 of the plumbers' union.

He thought back to how his dog, Lucy, had gotten so gravely ill in the summer that he had her euthanized.

"She was 10 but she was healthy and then she got sick. I had to carry her up the stairs. She had bad, bad diarrhea. She wouldn't drink or eat. I had to take her in and put her to sleep," he said.

He wondered if the lead level could explain why his wife Suzan's hair kept falling out or if it had anything to do with the persistent rash on the back of his head.

"I chalked it up to getting old," he said. "I didn't put two and two together."

He's made an appointment with his doctor, and is contemplating digging into the ground to confirm that the service line running between the main and his home is at least partially made of lead.

"I'm mostly upset at myself," he added. "I should have known better. When I seen and smelled the nasty water, I should have known something was up. I never should have trusted them when they said it was safe."

A view of Flint drinking water pipes, showing different kinds of iron corrosion and rust, provided by FlintWaterStudy.orgMin Tang and Kelsey Pieper

Like most of his neighbors, Harrington accepted government assurances that the water the city began taking from the Flint River in April 2014 — in a cost-cutting move — was perfectly safe to drink.

He and Suzan split four pots of coffee made with that water each day, thinking that the heat would kill off anything harmful, never realizing that boiling water actually increases the concentration of lead.

They didn't stop drinking it until October, when the state finally confirmed what independent experts had been saying: the river water was corroding old pipes, leaching lead into the system and poisoning an untold number of people.

The city has stopped using the river water and started adding anti-corrosion phosphates to the supply in an effort to build up a protective film inside the decayed pipes and keep the lead from seeping out.

The treatment means that the level of lead in the water now is likely lower than it was before a state of emergency was declared in January.

Test results show unsafe lead levels in Harold Harrington's water.Connor, Tracy (206405529)

When Harrington's results came in, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality — which has been blamed for botching the response to the lead crisis — showed up at his house with bottles for more samples. Health officials questioned him about any medical issues that could be related.

Harrington told them how his wife had been hospitalized for five days in April with what doctors described an pneumonia symptoms. He's now curious if it was Legionnaires' disease, which sickened more than 80 people and killed 10 in Flint.

Gov. Rick Snyder's office was informed in March that a county health official believed the Legionnaire's outbreak was linked to the river water. Harrington said if he had known that, "we would have taken precautions," but it wasn't made public for months.

There's no hard evidence that the Harringtons' health issues are linked to the lead in their water. And because they have been drinking bottled water for so many weeks — using the lead-tainted tap water only to shower — their current blood levels are unlikely to be high.

That's why Harold Harrington plans to ask his doctor if he can have a liver biopsy to determine just how much of the heavy metal he may have absorbed. That might seem extreme, but he thinks it might be worth it.

"Then I'll know they poisoned me and lied to me for 16 months," he said.