As Lead Levels Rise, Newark’s Water Filter Program Must Be Fixed

Earlier this month, Newark reported yet another exceedance of the 15 parts per billion federal action level for lead in drinking water, its fifth exceedance in the five six-month monitoring periods that have elapsed over the past two years. This time, lead levels in the City’s drinking water are tapping in at 55 parts per billion at the 90th percentile, more than three times the federal action level. And during the last completed six-month monitoring period, which closed in December 2018, City-wide lead levels reached 47.9 parts per billion, with nearly half of samples reporting lead at levels above 15 parts per billion (ppb). While these recent levels demonstrate an alarming spike, Newark’s elevated lead levels are not new. Newark’s drinking water has far exceeded the federal action level in every six month monitoring period since 2017: reporting 27 ppb (June 2017); 26.7 ppb (December 2017); 17.8 ppb (June 2018).

Lead levels in Newark’s drinking water have skyrocketed in recent years.

Last week, the State also cited Newark for a handful of additional violations, including for exceeding maximum levels of disinfection byproducts—both total trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids—in drinking water. These violations are not new either; Newark was cited for disinfection byproducts violations in 2015, 2016, October 2018, and March 2019. And in 2018 and early 2019, Newark was cited for violating another federal rule  when its drinking water was found to contain too much turbidity, or cloudiness. Too much turbidity indicates filters at the treatment plant may not be operating properly and can interfere with disinfection, posing potential health risks.

Long term exposure to the disinfection byproducts found in Newark’s water has been linked to cancer and may pose reproductive risks. And exposure to even low levels of lead is associated with serious, irreversible damage to children’s developing brains and nervous systems and can have serious adverse effects on otherwise healthy adults. Together, Newark’s ongoing lead exceedances and other drinking water-related violations indicate a poorly managed water system that requires serious improvements in order to protect the health of Newark residents.

In June 2018, NRDC and Newark Education Workers Caucus—a group of Newark public school educators—filed a lawsuit in federal court to ensure that those who live and work in Newark are protected from dangerously high levels of lead in their tap water. Many other concerned Newark residents and advocacy groups, including Newark Water Coalition, are working tirelessly toward the same goal. 

Newark’s Response to the Crisis Remains Inadequate

After considerable pressure, Newark began providing water filters to certain residents as a first step in addressing the problem. But NRDC’s investigation has revealed that Newark’s response to the crisis leaves many residents unprotected.

For example, under Newark’s program, residents in the Wanaque service area—the water service area that provides drinking water to the eastern half of the City—are not eligible to receive a filter, unless they can convince Newark to test their water and the test shows levels above 15 parts per billion. At the same time, the City is actively telling residents in the Wanaque service area that they are not at risk, decreasing the likelihood that residents in that area will request a water test or a filter. Residents in the Wanaque service area should be eligible regardless of whether they’ve received a water test, particularly since levels in the Wanaque now exceed the 15 parts per billion federal action level.

Newark claims it will provide free water sampling, but residents have had difficulty taking the City up on that offer. One Newark resident spent weeks trying to get her water tested. She repeatedly called the City to schedule a testing appointment. Twice, the City employee never showed up at the scheduled time. When a City employee finally came to test her water, he argued that the water test was not necessary, but her family insisted. The result? The lead concentration in her tap water was more than 10 times the federal action level.

It’s not surprising that residents are frustrated under the status quo. Some have resorted to boiling their tap water in hopes that it will make it safe, not knowing that boiling the tap water increases the concentration of lead in the water.    

Many Residents Who Have Received Filters Are Still at Risk

Even if a resident does manage to get a water filter from the City, a filter sitting in a box or used incorrectly will not prevent exposure. Wide-ranging problems, such as installation difficulties, incompatible faucets, inadvertent use of filters in bypass mode, running of hot water through filters, and failure to replace expired cartridges, have prevented some residents from securing protection. Newark must make specific improvements to ensure all at-risk residents receive the equipment and training they need to install and operate their filters in a health-protective way.

Newark resident Shakima Thomas and her son

Demetrius Freeman, NRDC

For example, many residents have faucets that are incompatible with the filter models distributed by the City. Some residents have had to use brute force to affix their filter, and others have reported loose filters and leaking housing connections. These residents may need adaptors in order to use their filters effectively, but many do not know where to ask for them or how to use them. Others may need to use pitcher filters, rather than a filter that mounts to their faucet, because of the type of faucet they have. Incompatible, loose, or leaking filters will not protect against exposure, but residents believing they are protected will continue to rely on them, therefore increasing exposure risks.

Of the residents who have overcome installation challenges, many have been operating the filters in a way that does not provide protection. For example, some residents inadvertently operate filters in bypass mode, allowing water to pass through without filtering. Others are not aware that running hot water through their filters can destroy the filters or limit how long they last. Some residents were not told that their filter’s cartridge needed to be replaced or when to replace it. And many residents are operating their filters with expired cartridges, providing no protection from lead. While the City claims to be providing residents with replacement cartridges—which must be replaced about every three months depending on water use—residents have run out of replacement cartridges and have been told by the City that additional cartridges are not available.

As one court found after NRDC and its partners filed a lawsuit in the wake of the Flint drinking water crisis, merely “leaving water filters at residents’ doorstep . . . does not ensure proper installation and maintenance.” A comprehensive in-person installation and maintenance program is necessary to protect the health of Newark residents.

Literacy and Language Barriers Require Additional Resources

Newark’s filter program also fails to address literacy issues, which present a significant barrier to many residents’ ability to properly install, use, and maintain filters. At least 50% of adult Newark residents have a reading level at or below the elementary school level. The filter manufacturer’s instructions—the only form of written instructions Newark has consistently provided to many residents—reflect a high school reading level and thus are too complex for some residents to follow. And the instructions recently posted on the City’s website only help residents who know how and where to look for installation help. Residents without that knowledge are left in the dark.

Newark also has a diverse population, with nearly half of residents speaking a language other than English at home. Yet, the manufacturer’s instructions, as well as Newark’s website announcing the availability of filters, are provided only in English. The recordings of the few public events that Newark has held about the crisis are available only in English. One Newark resident who lives in an apartment with a lead service line with her ten-month-old son, repeatedly called the City to request a filter, but was unable to find someone who could give her instructions in Spanish. Months ago, she was told the City would call her back, but she still has not received that call. The City has failed to provide an adequate way for non-English speaking residents to learn about the crisis. So, many people continue to drink their tap water or use it to cook, unaware of the risk. 

The State’s Intervention Has Not Been Sufficient

The State of New Jersey has recently recognized the problems with Newark’s failure to provide installation assistance and now requires Newark to provide in-person assistance to residents who are having problems with their filters. The City is supposed to publicize the availability of this assistance via letter, website, and social media. However, their website doesn’t mention any offer to provide in-person installation assistance.

This is particularly troublesome because, until the State stepped in, Newark refused to provide any installation, operation, or maintenance assistance, as a policy, unless the resident requesting assistance was disabled or elderly. Residents who have already requested assistance and been denied are unlikely to ask again unless Newark makes abundantly clear that the policy has changed. Furthermore, those who face challenges with reading or computer-use, who would likely benefit the most from in-person installation assistance, are unlikely to know that assistance is available, given the City’s deficient publicity strategy. 

Furthermore, this assistance only helps residents who are aware that they are not using their filters correctly. Due to the filter’s complex instructions, many residents are not aware that they are using their filters incorrectly, and thus will not seek out assistance. A program that only helps residents who know that they need help will never protect all at-risk residents.   

NRDC and NEW Caucus have Sued to Make Sure the Program Is Fixed

The City’s filter program falls far short of the steps that would be required to provide an interim solution to the health crisis caused by the City’s drinking water violations. That’s why NRDC asked a judge to order Newark to provide a comprehensive filer program, or bottled water, to Newark’s most vulnerable residents, among other requests. Newark officials have put their residents’ health at risk for too long. It’s time the City treated this like the public health crisis it knows it is.

If you live in Newark and believe your tap water could be contaminated with lead, click here for information about how to protect you and your family.

About the Authors

Erik D. Olson

Senior Strategic Director, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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