Newark's Bottled Water Plan Denies Thousands Safe Water

Demetrius Freeman for NRDC

For “everybody, young and old, big and small, regardless of where you are in the state, in this community, certainly in Newark, in this country, clean water is a right, not a privilege.” This is what Governor Murphy promised the public when announcing Newark’s bottled water program on August 14, 2019. We agree with Governor Murphy. Having safe water to drink is a right. But unfortunately, it does matter where you live in Newark. Tens of thousands of at-risk residents are left without access to safe water under the City’s current bottled water program.

The levels of lead in Newark’s drinking water are some of the highest recently recorded by a large water system in the United States. And we know the cause: City and State officials are violating the federal safe drinking water law.

Data source: EPA SDWIS Database

For years, Newark has failed to properly treat its water to prevent lead from leaching and flaking off from pipes, plumbing, and fixtures into residents’ tap water. At the same time, City and State officials denied the crisis, and promised residents that the water was safe to drink.

This is why Newark Education Workers Caucus, a group of public school educators, and NRDC have spent the last two years fighting for justice in Newark, with the goal of forcing Newark officials to provide safe drinking water to residents whose tap water has been contaminated with lead for years. Back in August 2018, NRDC and Newark Education Workers Caucus filed a motion in federal court seeking emergency relief, including a comprehensive bottled water program to make sure all at-risk residents had access to safe water. Finally acknowledging the drinking water crisis, the City attempted to distribute faucet filters to certain qualifying residents starting in October 2018. But Newark Education Workers Caucus and NRDC continued to ask for bottled water delivery as alternative relief, particularly after receiving reports of the many problems residents were facing in obtaining, installing, using, and maintaining filters.

Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) instructed Newark and the State to provide bottled water to certain residents after an initial investigation showed that filters in two residences were not removing lead in drinking water to safe levels. The investigation into filter effectiveness is ongoing while the City distributes bottled water to some residents—but the bottled water program does not begin to offer the scope of protection necessary to truly limit residents’ lead exposure during this time. Newark’s “fix” continues to leave thousands of families without access to safe water. 

Families in the eastern part of Newark are not provided bottled water

Under Newark’s current program, bottled water is available only to certain residents in part of the City. The program excludes approximately 30,000 households in the eastern part of the City—even though the lead levels in drinking water in many homes in those neighborhoods have been tested by the City and found to far exceed safe levels.

In the six-month monitoring period that ended in June 2019, the City’s own data showed that lead levels in residential drinking water in the eastern part of the City hovered at the 15 parts per billion (ppb) lead action level set by the EPA, with many homes far exceeding that level. Newark does not dispute these levels and signed an agreement, filed in federal court, that levels in the eastern part of the City ranged between 14.65 and 15.65 ppb at the 90th percentile during the last complete monitoring period. Newark reported lead levels above 50 ppb at numerous homes in the eastern part of the City, with levels reaching as high as 454 ppb in that area.  

NRDC, from Newark data

Experts agree that devastating health effects can occur at lead levels well below 15 ppb. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that lead levels in drinking water fountains at schools must not exceed 1 ppb. Likewise, the EPA’s public health goal for lead is zero, an acknowledgement that no level of lead exposure is safe. In children, even low levels of lead exposure can interfere with growth, behavior, and ability to learn. In adults, lead exposure is associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, low kidney function, and challenges with both pregnancy and fertility, among other conditions.

Despite these clear risks, Newark officials continue to assure residents in the eastern part of the City that their water is “unaffected” and that they are not impacted by the crisis. But just because levels in the western part of the City are off the charts does not mean Newark can disregard elevated lead levels in the east, where residents—especially pregnant women and kids—also face serious health risks.

Though the federal court recently declined to expand bottled water distribution to families with pregnant moms and young children in the eastern part of the City, drinking water sampling just in that area shows many homes with high lead levels. 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 own 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, data indicate 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.)

It is unrealistic to expect residents in the eastern part of Newark to flush their taps for 5 minutes—the flushing duration some experts say is necessary to protect health, absent further study—every time they use their water. Is a mom waking up for a 2 a.m. feeding going to flush her tap for several minutes prior to 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.

Families in homes with lead plumbing, solder, or fixtures are not eligible for bottled water

The problems with the City’s bottled water program do not end there. The City says only families that live in homes with confirmed lead service lines are eligible for bottled water. Thus, the program doesn’t cover families with homes that have lead plumbing, lead solder, or lead fixtures. But those families are very much at risk, too. According to the EPA and other sources, when water is not properly treated—as was the case in Newark for years—lead can leach into drinking water from a number of sources, including lead plumbing, solder, and fixtures. Even now that the City has started using a better corrosion control method, it can take 6 to 12 months, and possibly longer, before the inside of lead plumbing, solder, and fixtures are coated with the protective layer that is necessary to reduce lead levels in tap water.

Newark acknowledged as much in October 2018, when City officials determined that families without lead service lines but with lead plumbing elements were eligible for filters because they were also at risk of lead exposure. Why, then, are the very same families not eligible for bottled water?

According to the City’s own sampling data, there are dozens of homes across Newark that do not have lead service lines but have sky-high lead levels that are ineligible for bottled water.

Currently, families in homes without lead service lines but with test results showing lead levels as high as 330 ppb, 281 ppb, and 212 ppb, are listed as ineligible for bottled water on the City’s website. Any safe drinking water program where eligibility is based on the presence of a lead service line will necessarily exclude thousands of families at risk. Eligibility for bottled water must be expanded to include homes with lead plumbing, lead solder, and lead fixtures—not just lead service lines.

Even families who qualify for bottled water are not given enough for drinking and cooking

The City’s formal public notice announcing the availability of bottled water does not say how much water each family can procure each week. According to the City’s FAQs on the program, families are given two cases, each containing 24 16.9-oz. bottles, per week (a total of 811 oz. per week). According to the Centers for Disease Control, American men should drink 125 oz. a day (875 oz. per week) and women should drink 91 oz. a day (637 oz. per week). The water currently provided under the City’s bottled water program is simply not enough water for even one person, let alone an entire family, to drink and cook with for a week, particularly during the final days of warm weather. 

Governor Murphy recently claimed that families are now eligible for four cases of water per week, but neither the City or the State have updated their websites or the official public notice announcing the availability of bottled water to reflect this new information.

Other deficiencies

In the first few weeks of distribution, many residents reported long lines at distribution centers and shortages that caused centers to close temporarily while water was restocked. Many residents do not have the means or ability to travel to distribution centers, and Newark has not clarified who is eligible for assistance or delivery. And with all of the conflicting information on eligibility for bottled water, including which types of residences are even impacted by this crisis, residents are understandably confused about where to turn for accurate information and resources.

Filling the gaps in the City’s program

Grassroots organizations in Newark, including Newark Education Workers Caucus and Newark Water Coalition, have been working to make sure all at-risk Newark residents have access to safe water, regardless of where they live in the City. Some churches are accepting bottled water shipments for donation:

St. Lucy’s Church
Attn: Newark Water Coalition
118 7th Avenue
Newark, New Jersey 07104 

Paradise Baptist Church
348 15th Avenue
Newark, New Jersey 07103

Recommendations for Newark residents

Demand Bottled Water from the City. City officials have said publicly that residents who request bottled water at distribution centers will receive bottled water. NRDC has not tested the veracity of that commitment. However, we recommend that residents request bottled water at distribution centers if they are able to do so. Additionally, residents who are not eligible to receive bottled water, but who already have water filters that are certified to remove lead, should continue to use those filters while the City is studying whether the City-provided filters are effective.

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.

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.

Maintain Your Faucet Aerators, Too. Remove and clean individual faucet aerators (the little screen on your kitchen faucet that can be unscrewed and washed off), since lead particles and sediment can collect in the aerator screen.

Protect Growing Bodies. 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. Consider testing kids for lead exposure by a doctor or pediatrician.

Consider Replacing Your Own 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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