The Lead Crisis in Newark, New Jersey
As the largest city of New Jersey, Newark is still mostly known as a gritty, blue-collar port; a reputation that has remained relatively the same over the past few decades. Founded in the late 1600s by Puritans, it’s one of the oldest cities in the United States of America.
And with age, comes baggage. For Newark, not far from Manhattan, that’s in the form of some of the highest levels of lead recorded in tap water by a water system in recent history.
What compounds this dangerous ordeal is how elected officials have responded to the controversy, further alarming a community with close to 300,000 inhabitants.
City and state officials alike are being accused of violating the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), enacted in 1974 to safeguard the protection of American drinking water. Activists claim that residents were not informed of the elevated levels of lead (nor the health concerns), in addition to failing to treat the tap water properly.
But what are the negative impacts of such water?
It’s believed by experts (such as the EPA and the CDC) that there is no safe level of lead exposure, especially for pregnant women and children. Complications from lead exposure can consist of fertility issues, cognitive dysfunction, cardiovascular problems, decreased kidney functions, lower IQ and damage to the brain and nervous system.
The crisis in the city and surrounding area gained national attention in 2016, when thirty public schools were found to have elevated lead levels. Prior to this testing, Newark had the leading number of lead-poisoned children in the state. Under the SDWA (enforced by the EPA), the accepted threshold for lead in tap water is 15 parts per billion (ppb). However, it’s noted that health situations will vary for each individual.
Here’s happened next, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an international non-profit advocacy group with headquarters in the United States.
June 2017: The federal action level of 15 parts per billion for lead is exceeded in the city of Newark. The city has more than ten percent of homes testing at nearly twice that amount from January to June 2017.
September 2017: Eleven groups, including the NRDC, send a letter to officials in Newark. In it, the blame is placed on the city for not taking appropriate action regarding the lead.
“The City of Newark has been slow to widely release pertinent information about the real danger of lead in our drinking water and has yet to inform the public of the specific locations where lead pipes were found. This lack of transparency is concerning, if not alarming. I find it unacceptable that the City is fast-tracking development while slow to comprehensively address life-threatening infrastructure issues like this one,” reads a quote from a resident in the letter.
December 2017: Newark violates the federal action level again, for the second consecutive monitoring period for lead, which ran between July to December 2017.
April 2018: A lawsuit is filed by the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus), as well as NRDC, which announced their intent to sue the city. The former group, which consists of public school educators, accuse officials of repeatedly violating the SDWA.
June 2018: The federal lead levels in Newark are exceeded for the eighteenth consecutive month, this time analyzing the period between January and June 2018. NRDC and NEW Caucus take officials to court over the reported violations.
August 2018: In the middle of summer, the levels still continue to rise. NRDC and NEW Caucus ask a federal court to issue an emergency order to protect the most vulnerable.
October 2018: Feeling the pressure, plans were announced by city officials to provide water filters to those in certain Newark neighborhoods.
December 2018: Two dozen Newark homes test above 50 parts per billion.
January 2019: Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark, pens an open letter to President Donald Trump. “Besides Newark, more than 20 other New Jersey cities and towns have elevated levels of lead in their tap water, and so do thousands of municipalities in our nation. This crisis, mainly, affects older black and brown cities with limited resources and serious health issues that are systemically overlooked by every level of government,” he writes.
February 2019: NRDC requests that the court mandates bottled water for Newark families, specifically those that include: pregnant women, children under six-years-old and those already in homes with elevated lead levels and/or lead service lines.
April 2019: Heading into the middle of the year, Newark is found to have the highest water lead levels of any water system serving more than 100,000 people in the United States.
So how did Newark get to this point?
The city’s water coming out of the reservoir is safe; the problem is water chemistry.
You see, balancing water chemistry is complicated. In Newark, the lead likely started leaching from pipes because the city has been reducing the levels of pH in the water since 2012. 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.
Lowering pH increases acidity and can make water more corrosive. 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.
Of course, the problem in Newark may be the start of concerns to come. Infrastructure in the United States has been crumbling for years, and that will become more complicated as additional American cities succumb to the fate of Flint or Newark or New Port Richey.
In regard to Newark, it’s estimated that the cost to fix the infrastructure will cost more than $75 million, replacing 1,500 city lead service lines – and residents who qualify are required to pay $1,000 towards the cost of the replacement. It’s estimated that the project will take eight to ten years until completion.
On a national level, data from the EPA finds that from 2015 to 2018, nearly thirty million people in the U.S. consumed water that violated the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule. Five million more consumed water that exceeded the EPA’s Lead Action Level.