Newark Is Still Leaving Thousands Without Safe Water

Lead in water threat remains for many Newark residents.

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The City of Newark has generally stopped distributing bottled water as of October 8. We are deeply concerned that this is premature, particularly considering neither the City, the State, nor the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have released any of the underlying data supporting the City’s conclusions on the recent filter investigation.

We also are troubled that Newark still is refusing to provide filters (much less bottled water) to about 30,000 households in the Eastern part of the city who officials claim are “unaffected” by the lead crisis. Yet Newark’s own testing data shows that dozens of homes in that Eastern part of the city do indeed have elevated lead levels above the EPA lead action level in their tap water, as my previous blog highlighted.

Premature withdrawal of bottled water

On September 23, 2019 Newark and the State reported that that 97% of the PUR filters distributed by the City are effective at reducing lead levels below 10 parts per billion (ppb), but did not provide any of the data to support those findings. At the same time, officials advised residents to resume the use of City-provided filters and said that the City would “dial-back” the provision of bottled water.

According to press reports, the EPA had not yet reviewed and approved Newark’s filter investigation results, which were the basis of the city’s announcement that bottled water is no longer necessary. The EPA had requested that Newark supply bottled water to city residents on August 9 based on test results showing that filters in use didn’t work to remove lead

We strongly believe that the City, State, and EPA should provide all test results and related protocols to the public, so Newark residents can feel confident that filters will protect their health. Anything less than full transparency will breed further distrust and skepticism. 

In addition, it is important to note that the Newark’s website says it will still provide two cases of bottled water every two weeks to households with pregnant moms or children younger than 6 years old, at a single location in the city. While we appreciate Newark’s recognition that these vulnerable populations continue to need bottled water, we are concerned about the inconvenience of pregnant moms or families from across the city having to pick up water at a single site. Additionally, providing one case per week (405 ounces or 12 liters) is far too little water for these families’ drinking and cooking needs, so even this token offer is insufficient (for example, the Institute of Medicine officially recommends that one child age 4-8 needs to consume 12 liters per week, and a pregnant or nursing mom needs far more).

Families in the eastern part of Newark should be eligible for filters

As I previously discussed in greater detail, under Newark’s current program, only certain residents in part of the city are eligible for filters. The program excludes approximately 30,000 households in the eastern part of Newark—even though the lead levels in drinking water in dozens of homes in those neighborhoods have been tested by the City and found to exceed safe levels. In this area, only homes that the city has tested and that exceed the EPA Action Level of 15 ppb are eligible for filters. But residents of the eastern part of the city have repeatedly been told they are unaffected, and only a small percentage of homes have been tested. This means most people in the east don’t know whether their water contains elevated lead levels and will not get a filter.

Just because levels in the western part of the City are off the charts does not mean Newark should disregard elevated lead levels in the east, where residents—especially pregnant women and kids—also face serious health risks.

Inconsistent flushing recommendations

Some experts have found that flushing taps for about 5 minutes prior to use of the water could help to protect residents of the eastern part of the City, which is served by a different water treatment plant than the rest of the city (called the Wanaque plant). Even the City’s own consultant recommended flushing for the eastern part of the city, finding that flushing is an effective means of reducing lead concentrations in that area. But the City has not followed its consultant’s recommendation; rather than providing clear instructions to residents in the eastern part of the City to flush their taps, it has continued to insist that drinking water in the east is safe.    

Adding to Newark residents’ confusion, the City previously reported that flushing will not effectively reduce lead levels in rest of the City served by the other Newark water treatment plant, called the Pequannock plant, and that flushing could actually exacerbate exposure risks. This helped to trigger the City’s distribution of water filters last fall. 

But officials have changed their tune, now announcing that flushing for at least 5 minutes after stagnation would be effective and, indeed, is recommended for homes using filters in the Pequannock service area. Officials have not explained, or offered data to explain, why the City’s consultant’s earlier findings regarding the risks of flushing are no longer of concern. To add further confusion, this news came with an alternative recommendation to flush for 10 minutes before using the City-provided water filter for those with a “long” front yard and lead service line.

It is unrealistic to expect residents in Newark to flush their taps for 5 or 10 minutes when they turn on their taps––especially when they’ve heard conflicting messages on flushing for some time. Is a mom waking up for a 2 a.m. feeding going to flush her tap for before mixing formula to make a bottle for her baby? Many will not. We believe that no residents should be exposed to such a grave risk of cumulative harm from lead exposure.

Recommendations for Newark residents

Get your tap water tested for lead. If you live in Newark, request a free test from the Newark Department of Water and Sewer Utilities by calling 973-733-6303 or emailing waterandsewer@ci.newark.nj.us. For independent testing, Healthy Babies Bright Futures lets you pay what you can afford for the test. You can also check the EPA’s website to find a certified lab or go to mytapscore.com to line up a certified lab to test your water.

Install, maintain, and use your filter correctly—don’t run hot water through your filter, and change the cartridge regularly! It’s important to use a filter that’s certified to remove lead (like a PUR filter). Also, be sure to change the filter cartridges regularly, in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions. It’s also important to install a faucet filter correctly (watch PUR instructions here), and to run it for 5 minutes before first using a new filter cartridge. You need to change a PUR faucet filter cartridge every 100 gallons or when the light turns red (whichever happens first). Running hot water through a filter can ruin its effectiveness.

Use Only Cold Tap Water for Drinking & Cooking—and don’t boil your drinking water! Warm or hot water coming out of your tap is more likely to contain elevated levels of lead. Also, don’t boil your drinking water—that can concentrate the lead content, making your potential exposure greater.

Protect Growing Bodies by Using Bottled Water. To the extent possible, use only bottled water to prepare baby formula and food. Children and pregnant or nursing women should also use bottled water for drinking and cooking. The city says it is giving out limited free bottled water to pregnant moms and families with kids 6 and under.

Consider Testing Kids for Lead Exposure. Your pediatrician or other doctor can test for lead exposure. The city also says free blood-testing is available at the Health Department, 110 Williams Street, Newark, NJ (call (973)733-5310 to schedule an appointment).

Consider Replacing Your Own Lead-Containing Pipes and Fixtures. The City recently announced a Lead Service Line Replacement Program, which they say will replace all lead service lines in the City at no cost to the homeowner. The details of that program have yet to be announced. Contact the City at info@newarkleadserviceline.com to learn more about the program. The entire length of a lead service line should be removed and replaced at one time. Replacing only part of it could cause lead levels to increase. For more information on the risks of partial replacement, see here.

About the Authors

Erik D. Olson

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

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