Thousands of homes in Bergen and Hudson counties may be at risk of having elevated levels of lead in their drinking water, officials of Suez North America said yesterday.
The company, which serves 800,000 customers in northern New Jersey, detected unsafe levels of lead in 16 of 108 homes tested this summer, officials said at a press conference at their Haworth Water Treatment plant.
The findings are the latest sign that the state’s aging water infrastructure, particularly decades-old lead service lines to customers’ homes, pose significant health issues to the public. As in other cases where elevated lead levels in tap water have been found, the problem is believed to be linked to lead service lines connecting customers with water mains in the street.
Lead and human health
Lead can cause serious health issues, especially for pregnant women, infants, and young children. Lead poisoning can cause significant, lifelong physical and mental complications.
The water leaving the company’s treatment plant has no detectable levels of lead, but the contaminant leaches from the service lines and other lead fixtures in the home, according to Suez officials. The company could only provide guesstimates of how extensive the lead problem is.
Approximately 5 percent of the utility-owned service lines in its system contain lead, or about 8,600 connections. An additional 15 percent, or 25,000 lines, have lead goosenecks — a short piece of flexible piping that connects a water main to a service line. Suez plans to replace at least 7 percent of those lines each year.
An unknown number
What is not known is how many of the customer-owned service lines — stretching from the curb into a home or building, contain lead. Suez officials said homes built after 1986 when lead lines were banned likely do not have lead problems.
“We’re doing everything we can to resolve this issue,’’ said David Stanton, president of Suez North America’s utility operations. “We are committed to providing our customers with safe drinking water that meets all standards.’’
Mark McKoy, general manager for Suez, added, “If you live in a home built after 1986, it’s very unlikely you have lead in your water.’’
For customers who may have a lead service line, replacing it is a big step in resolving the lead problem, McKoy said. But it is not cheap, costing anywhere from $3,500 to $6,000, he added.
Looking for legislative help
Suez is working with state officials and legislators to try and come up with ways to help address the problem, including seeking legislation that would create a low-interest loan program to help customers replace lead service lines and fixtures.
In the meantime, the company is offering free water tests for any customer served by a lead service line. Suez also is offering free water filters that remove the lead to customers with test results above government standards.
For decades, Suez has had a corrosion control program to try to prevent lead from leaching into drinking water. It plans to conduct a comprehensive monitoring of the program over the next year, according to Stanton.
The company said both the testing of the water samples and the sites with elevated levels of lead were scattered across their franchise territory, but did not include areas where Suez does not own the systems, such as Jersey City, Hoboken, and other towns in Hudson County.