On the streets of Newark, worry about lead in the tap water

There was worry among parents in Newark over the health of their children Tuesday, after federal officials said tests showed that tap water in some city residences exceeded federal levels for lead despite the presence of faucet filters supplied by the city.

Ebony Williams said she had installed one of the filters a couple of weeks ago and it’s already blinking red, indicating that it needs to be replaced. City officials have been distributing free bottled water, but Williams was planning to spend her time instead having her two children tested for lead in their bodies.

“I’m taking them today to Williams Street — instead of getting in line for the water, I’m going to get in line for the lead test,” she said.

Lead is known to be especially harmful to children, and parents who harbor any doubts about their children’s level of exposure were urged to have them tested.

“If a parent is concerned their child’s been lead-exposed, they should get their child tested. It’s the only way to know for sure, if there’s been exposure,” said Peter Chen, policy counsel for Advocates for Children of NJ. “The long-term consequences for kids — both developmentally and neurologically — are really staggering and irreversible.”

Newark started distributing filters last November, after officials learned lead from corroded service pipes was leaching into water supplied by the city’s Pequannock system. The city handed out more than 38,000 PUR filters.

But the filters were never tested to see whether they were working properly until July and August — because they’re nationally-certified and endorsed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to sources in the Murphy administration. The sources said that state New Jersey’s DEP decided to test three homes equipped with the filters.

It got two surprising results: One house had 1,600 parts per billion of lead in raw water and filtered results that were 57.9 ppb. A second house, with 112 ppb of lead in its raw water showed filtered results of 50 ppb — both several times the EPA’s standard of 15 ppb. The federal agency notes that the standard is not a safety level – there is no safe level of lead in water. Rather, it’s the level at which it says remedial action is necessary.

Meanwhile, PUR, the company that manufactures the filters says its products — which were effective during Flint’s lead crisis — are actually rated to handle up to just 150 ppb in raw water.

City and state officials are now planning a much broader survey of homes with filtered water, but residents say they are confused.

“At this point, it feels like it’s a Band-Aid they’re using to lull everyone to think everything is OK,” said Rose Crenshaw. “But it isn’t enough. If the pipes need to be replaced, let’s do that. We’re paying for water. I’m a homeowner. We’re paying for water we cannot use.”

The water from the city’s reservoir system in the Pequannock River watershed connects to 14,730 lead service lines in Newark. Officials say they won’t know until they conduct further tests the extent of the problem, and they’re now developing a protocol for the expanded survey.

The EPA, in letter to state and city officials on Friday, ordered bottled water to be distributed in the meantime.

There were delays of a few hours in distributing the water Tuesday because the first delivery from New Jersey’s emergency management stores apparently displayed an expired “best by” date. The federal Food and Drug Administration has stated there’s no limit to bottled water’s shelf life.

“I came at 10, they told me after 11,” said Newark resident LaToya Bailey. “Now I’m back after 11, they told me after 1. So it’s like all of this run-around.”

Newark took delivery of 50,000 more cases from the state on Tuesday. Meanwhile, city officials are urging residents to assist them in making a longer-term fix effective, by running their water to distribute a chemical through supply pipes that’s designed to stem the corrosion at the heart of the problem. Officials hope the new chemical anti-corrosion treatment will take effect by the end of the year.

The city is also replacing those old lead service lines, but that could take eight years.

Newark has been grappling with lead contamination in its drinking water since 2017. For the present, Williams is left with worries about the levels of lead in her younger son’s body.

“It’s very hard for him to concentrate on certain things, and the symptoms I’ve been reading up on lately — he’s following that trend,” she said.

A state administration source said they’ll distribute bottled water for as long as is necessary but they want more support from the federal government, both money and boots on the ground.

Newark’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program conducts free screenings for lead poisoning through the Women, Infants and Children Bureau located at the Newark Department of Health & Community Wellness, 110 William Street, Newark, NJ 07102.

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