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How Newark got lead in its water, and what it means for the rest of America

Close to half of Newark homes tested have lead in their water. Residents are outraged.

by Sarah Sax
Dec 18 2018, 3:51pm

When Newark announced it was handing out 40,000 filters to residents believed to be at risk of high lead levels in their water, it came as a surprise to some. This was in October, and for more than a year, the city had said Newark's water was “absolutely safe to drink,” while robocalls to residents assured them their water was not contaminated.

The city’s messages did include an important caveat: that “the only high lead readings were taken inside older one- and two-family homes that have lead pipes leading from the city's pure water into those homes.” But the clarifications usually came after messaging touting the water’s safety. For many residents, some of whom didn’t know what a lead service line was and whether their homes and buildings had one or not, that wasn’t the message that stuck.

“I got dozens of robocalls,” said Shakima Thomas, a Newark resident who recently discovered that her water has almost twice the action level for lead allowed by EPA rules. “What I remember from them is ‘the water is not contaminated with lead, this is not an emergency.’”

Now, recent research by the government itself suggests Newark does indeed have a water crisis on its hands. A study commissioned by the city indicates that a change in the water chemistry at their Pequannock water treatment plant caused lead service lines to leach and contaminate the water in as many as 22,000 households’ taps, starting in early 2017. And recent tests showed close to half of 180 households monitored had dangerous levels of lead in their water.

In June, the Natural Resources Defense Council — the same organization that sued Flint, Michigan, over lead in its drinking water — sued Newark, for violating drinking water rules meant to protect residents from lead. Mayor Ras Baraka denies this.

“The fact of the matter is, they're legally required to treat the water so it's not corrosive and so it doesn't leach the lead out of the pipes,” said Erik Olson, senior director of the Healthy People and Thriving Communities Program at the NRDC.

So how did Newark get to this point? Beneath the more immediate crisis playing out in the city of 285,000 people is a deeper issue: outdated water infrastructure alongside a national lead law that critics say is too weak.

A delicate balance

Balancing water chemistry is difficult, and, as Newark’s experience shows, relatively small changes can have significant impacts on lead pipes. “No two water systems are the same,” said a corrosion expert from CDM Smith, the company that conducted the study for Newark. Cities have to take into account factors ranging from fallen leaves to good and bad bacteria and the mineral content and pH of water.

In Newark, the lead likely started leaching from pipes because the city has been reducing the levels of pH in the water since 2012. According to a draft study by CDM Smith, the city was adjusting pH levels to reduce cancer-causing compounds like trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids — byproducts of the disinfectants large water systems like Newark use to eliminate harmful microbes.

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Shakima Thomas uses bottled water to make coffee.

But metals, including lead, tend to be more toxic at a lower pH. So once the pH was lowered to a certain level, Newark’s water corroded some of the estimated 22,000 lead pipes in the city.

Flint shows the extreme of what can go wrong when the chemistry of water — or the water source itself — changes. In April 2014, an emergency manager switched Flint's main source of water from Lake Huron to the Flint River. City water managers also failed to put in a corrosion control inhibitor, a chemical that most large community water systems add to stop lead pipes in their system from corroding. The more corrosive Flint River water caused lead to leach from lead service lines, eventually elevating lead levels in children's blood, which can cause permanent developmental damage. Ultimately, Flint was forced to replace roughly 18,000 service lines by 2020 and switched back to their original water supply.

Watch: How Michigan’s water crises turned one nonvoter into a political organizer.

Outdated lead guidelines

While cities aren’t always responsible for the lead pipes themselves, federal guidelines make them responsible for the water that goes through those pipes.

At a recent press conference, Baraka said the city has “always been in compliance” with the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, which sets guidelines for how cities must manage their water systems

Large water systems are required to test their drinking water for lead and copper every three years. In 2017, the state of New Jersey began requiring testing twice a year. The federal government sets an “action level” for lead in drinking water at 15 parts per billion for the 90th percentile. If more than 10 percent of samples taken show elevated levels of lead, the water authority has to take action: conducting additional testing, informing the public, and, if the problem can’t be solved by adjusting the water chemistry, removing the pipes.

But 15 parts per billion isn’t based on health recommendations. The Centers for Disease Control states that “no safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”

The most recent tests in Newark show that 47.2 percent of houses tested exceed the action level for lead. The city is continuing to study the problem to find a solution. In the meantime, it has started to hand out filters to residents with lead lines and is ramping up their lead line replacement program.

Read more: Childhood lead poisoning in 29 California neighborhoods rival levels in Flint.

“There may have been a few hiccups,” says Larry Hajna, press officer at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which is also listed in the NRDC lawsuit. “But eventually the city did everything it was supposed to.” He didn’t elaborate on what hiccups there may have been.

The current Lead and Copper Rule, created in 1991, was last given minor updates in 2007. Since then, more significant proposed revisions to the rule have been delayed six times. One of the points up for discussion is whether to use a health-based lead limit. However, the EPA acknowledges that the lead level at which there are no health risks for children is zero.

The National Drinking Water Advisory Council recommended that the EPA instead establish a “household action level” based on the amount of lead in drinking water “that would raise an average, healthy infant’s blood lead level to greater than 5 micrograms per deciliter based on consumption of infant formula made with water.”

No safe level

Lead is a potent neurotoxin. When it accumulates in the body, it can cause irreversible brain damage. At high-enough levels, it can be fatal, and for children under 6, it can be especially detrimental.

Continuous low-level lead exposure in children can cause intellectual deficits and has been correlated with ADHD, delinquent behaviors and arrests, and increased rates of arrests involving violent offenses, according to a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences study.

“We still don’t know what the long-term effects of lead really are,” said Peter Chen, an attorney with the Advocates for Children in New Jersey. “The more we learn is that even low levels have substantial health impacts.”

Some researchers say the lead levels currently allowed by the EPA are unsafe, and advocate allowing only 5 parts per billion, a benchmark set by the Food and Drug Administration for bottled water.

“Anything above 5 parts per billion is concerning,” said Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech who helped uncover the Flint lead crisis. “The Lead and Copper Rule updates are seven years overdue for revision. Fifteen parts per billion isn’t acceptable anymore.”

The tap water in almost 70 percent of Newark households registered over 5 parts per billion in the most recent round of testing.

Lead paint is historically the main source of lead found in children’s blood, but the contribution of lead from drinking water hasn’t been researched as thoroughly. The EPA estimates that drinking water can make up 20 percent or more of total exposure to lead, and that infants who primarily consume formula made with tap water could be getting up to 60 percent of their exposure to lead from drinking water. But a 2016 study by the University Hospital of Quebec found that children who are exposed to lead in water with concentrations as low as one part per billion for six months may see a 35 percent increase in the amount of lead in their blood.

Anywhere from 6 million to 10 million lead service lines still exist throughout the U.S., according to the EPA. Some cities, like Lansing, Michigan, have opted to remove them all. But it’s a costly undertaking. Replacing all lead service lines can run from$16 billion-$80 billion, the EPA estimates.

In 2015, more than 1,000 community water systems in the United States serving almost 4 million people were in violation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, according to a study done by the NRDC. And if the 5 parts per billion were adopted nationally, many more cities would have a crisis on their hands.

“Lead Service Lines are ticking timebombs,” said Olson. “All it takes is a change in a city's water chemistry — they change their disinfectant or a storm comes through and changes the water balance — and it affects the lead service lines. The only way you can avoid this is pulling them out.”

Cover: Shakima Thomas and her son in their Newark home.