How to Protect Yourself from Lead-Contaminated Water

Any lead exposure is unsafe, but levels of the toxic metal in the Newark, New Jersey, water supply are nearly twice the federal action level. Here’s what to do if this crisis affects you.

Health experts agree that there is no safe level of exposure to lead. Often making its way into our drinking water supply after leaching from old pipes, the heavy metal can cause serious and irreversible damage to the body—affecting the nervous system, fertility, and cognitive ability, among other functions.

Through the Safe Drinking Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires all community water systems to prepare and deliver an annual water quality report and to take action in the event of lead contamination. Yet some municipalities continue to flout their obligations. A 2016 NRDC analysis indicated that more than 18 million people were being served by 5,363 community water systems that violated the Lead and Copper Rule—and some counties never even reported the troubling data.

Currently, lead levels in the drinking water of Newark, New Jersey, are among the highest of any large water system in the United States. NRDC and the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus), an association of educators who teach in Newark’s public schools, are applying pressure on the city, as well as city and state officials, to restore a safe drinking water supply. But until sufficient action is taken to comply with Safe Drinking Water Act standards, residents there (and anyplace where lead is an issue) should take these steps to minimize their exposure.

Get Your Tap Water Tested for Lead

If you live in Newark, you can request a free test from the city’s water department (call 973-733-6303 or email waterandsewer@ci.newark.nj.us); many other cities also offer this service to the public. If you’d prefer independent testing, you can get it done by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, which lets you pay what you can afford for the test, or check the EPA website to find a certified lab that can perform the testing. Be sure that the lab you choose asks that you collect multiple samples of your tap water.

When collecting samples from a tap for testing, it’s important that you avoid turning on the water in your home for at least six hours prior to sampling. There may be varying instructions from your city or lab on how to collect the samples, but collecting this “pre-flush” sample is a must.

At the Sink, Let It Run

Flush faucets by running water for a minimum of five minutes prior to consumption. (But remember—if you are taking samples of your water for lead, do not flush your faucets.)

Use Only Cold Tap Water for Drinking

Warm or hot water is more likely to contain elevated levels of lead. Also, do not boil your drinking water—that can concentrate the lead content.

Choose and Maintain Your Water Filter Carefully

Install and use water filters that are certified to remove lead by NSF International (labeled as meeting “NSF/ANSI Standard 53” for lead removal). See here for a review of how to pick and operate a filter, and here for a list of filters that reduce lead levels. Also, be sure to change the filter cartridges regularly, in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions.

Maintain Your Faucet Aerators, Too

Remove and clean individual faucet aerators, as lead particles and sediment can collect in the aerator screen.

Protect Growing Bodies

To the extent possible, use only filtered or bottled water to prepare baby formula and food. Children and pregnant or nursing women should also use filtered or bottled water for drinking and cooking. Further, parents should consider having their children tested for lead exposure by a doctor or pediatrician.

If You Can Afford It, Consider Replacing Your Own Pipes and Fixtures

Determine whether you have any lead-containing pipes and fixtures in your home. A certified plumber should be able to help you if you cannot. Replace any indoor household plumbing that may contain lead. If you do install any new household pipes or fixtures, flush the cold water taps afterward.

That said, here’s an important caveat: If you find that the pipe bringing water to your home from the street (service line) contains lead, do not remove that pipe. The city should remove and replace the entire length of the lead service line, because replacing only part of it could cause lead levels to increase. For more information about the problem with partial lead service line replacements, see here.

Call City Officials and Legislators

It’s critical to urge those in charge to fix the problem and keep you informed about their progress. In Newark, residents are encouraged to contact the Newark water department, their city council members, and the mayor. (Newark city government’s main number is 973-733-6400.) Express your concerns, and let officials know the city’s lead levels are unacceptable. Contact your state and federal legislators (Newark’s federal officials are Representative Donald Payne Jr., 973-645-3213; Senator Cory Booker, 973-639-8700, and Senator Robert Menendez, 973-645-3030), and urge them to fund water infrastructure improvement projects.

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