Interactive Map: Revealing Where Lead Lurks in New Jersey’s Drinking Water

Colleen O'Dea | March 18, 2016 | Map of the Week, Maps
The lead scare in Newark’s public schools has made headlines, but the presence of the toxic metal is a problem statewide

The 30 schools in Newark currently grappling with lead in their water are not the only places in New Jersey with water that is unsafe to drink due to high levels of the heavy metal.

On average, about 34 community and smaller private or governmental water systems are cited annually for violating federal action-levels for lead in drinking water, according to annual violation reports of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The problems in Flint, MI, have brought the issue of lead in drinking water to the fore nationally. Recently, fears about lead in New Jersey have been in the news for a number of reasons. For one, Gov. Chris Christie in January pocket vetoed a bill to add money to the state’s lead-hazard fund, and he recently called concerns over exposure to lead “an overdramatized issue.” For another, it has come to light within the last month that 30 schools in Newark and Morristown Medical Center both had very high levels of lead in their water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s position is that there should be no lead in any drinking water, “based on the best available science which shows there is no safe level of exposure to lead.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long-term exposure to lead can cause nausea, heart disease, and kidney disease. Its affects on children are much worse and at lower levels and can lead to anemia, mental disability, and death.

Because lead contamination of drinking water often results from the corrosion of plumbing materials, the EPA has established a treatment action level for lead of 15 parts per billion. Water systems are required to take steps to prevent lead from contaminating water. These include making drinking water less corrosive to the materials it comes in contact with on its way to consumers. When a water system exceeds the action level for lead, it must also inform the public about steps they should take to protect their health.

[related]”Actually, over the years minerals build up on these pipes and help to form a protective barrier that can prevent the lead from leaching into the water, according to Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman. “Water suppliers have to carefully monitor and control water chemistry so that it doesn’t become corrosive and impact this lining or cause the lead to leach out of the solder or plumbing,” he added. “Achieving compliance includes ongoing monitoring as addressing the source of the problem, which could include installation of treatment system, system optimization, and follow-up monitoring.”

Hajna said there are three large systems serving more than 50,000 people that are undertaking abatement measures under the federal law: the Passaic Valley Water Commission, Brick Municipal Utilities Authority, and Ridgewood. All have posted information posted on their websites as required by law, he noted. Another five smaller community systems — Tilton and Tower East mobile home parks in Egg Harbor; Hilltop Mobile Home Park in Pemberton; Reflection Lake Garden Apartment and Milford Manor in West Milford — also are dealing with lead problems. There may be other, non-community systems that currently are in violation of the 15 parts per billion standard but that information was not immediately available.

In a notice on its website, the Brick MUA states that its problem with lead is one that more utilities across the country will be facing: “rising levels of chloride in water due to the excessive use of road salt and sea level rise” make the water more corrosive. The authority said it has changed its water-treatment methods to reduce corrosiveness and found a 65 percent reduction in lead concentrations.

Last week, state and school officials disclosed that nearly half of Newark’s public schools recently were found to have elevated lead levels in water samples. The highest was 558 parts per billion (ppb) — some 38 times the federal action limit — measured at Bard High School. That news came about a week after the announcement that Morristown Medical Center had been cited for high lead levels in its water: The highest was 243 ppb from a sample take February 26.

An examination of the state’s water violation reports from 2010 through 2014 found 168 violations — some at the same systems. Most of those were at smaller, private systems. Eleven were in schools or daycare facilities. The highest of these levels was 305 ppb at Upper Middle School in Cape May County in 2013. Overall, the highest level in a non-community water system was found at AM Best Company in Tewksbury: 516 ppb measured three years ago.

People can see the quality of water in their communities, businesses or schools by querying the DEP’s Drinking Water Watch database.