With lead readings elevated, Newark distributes bottled water

Newark residents lined up to get bottled water at four locations across the city Monday afternoon in the wake of a warning by federal authorities that those living in homes with old lead service lines should not drink their tap water.

City staffers started distributing cases of bottled water for free Monday, days after the federal Environmental Protection Agency strongly urged city officials to do so when tests at three homes turned up high lead levels in two of them, despite the homeowners’ using filters designed to eliminate lead contamination.

Residents who got water at the Bo Porter Sports Complex on Lyons Avenue on Monday afternoon said they were worried.

“I’m not happy about it, that’s for sure,” said Joan Knowles. “Why? Well, we got the filters. We came back and got all the stuff we were supposed to get — and we’re still having a problem.”

“I don’t want to get poisoned,” said Anna Hargrove of the South Ward. “And this could be poison. You could be sick!”

In a letter dated Aug. 9, the EPA advised Mayor Ras Baraka and Catherine McCabe, the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, that city residents with “known or suspected lead service lines” should not drink their tap water, and should instead be drinking bottled water.

“We believe it is the responsibility of the City of Newark to provide such bottled water as soon as possible,” wrote Peter D. Lopez, the chief administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s office for the Metro New York region.

The letter was a follow-up to a Friday telephone conversation with Baraka and McCabe in which Lopez said that the elevated lead readings served to confirm earlier readings in homes equipped with lead filters that still exceeded the federal standard of 15 parts per billion of lead, Lopez wrote.

“The data suggest that use of the specific filtration devices distributed by Newark may not be reliably effective, in this particular situation, in reducing lead concentrations to below that standard,” Lopez wrote. “This means that we are unable at this time to assure Newark residents that their health is fully protected when drinking tap water filtered through these devices.”

Newark has been grappling with lead contamination in its drinking water since 2017, relying on filters while it implements long-term solutions. This is the first time the city has had to hand out bottled water.

“I was really shocked. I was surprised and upset,” said Yvette Jordan, who lives in Newark’s South Ward. “My first reaction was — what? I thought filters were working!”

Lead levels in her home had been tested at 44 parts per billion.

Jordan, who is part of a lawsuit filed against the city by the National Resources Defense Council claiming the city has mishandled the crisis, said she’s concerned that some people might not get the bottled water the city is handing out.

“How are you getting it to our elderly?” she said. “How are you figuring out — OK, here’s a family with small children, no car. How are you getting it there?”

The NRDC said the filters should be working.

“We think part of it is that people are not being trained as to how to use the filters correctly — how to maintain them,” said Erik Olson, the NRDC’s senior director for health and food. “For example, you can’t run hot water through a filter. It destroys the filter and I think a lot of people probably didn’t know that.”

Olson said he believed the lead levels in Newark are comparable or even in some cases higher than they were in Flint, Michigan. Beyond distributing bottled water, Baraka said officials with the city, the EPA and the PUR water-filtration company were trying to “figure out what exactly is happening.”

“I do want to say the PUR water filters are being used all over the country, all over the state of New Jersey. People are using them, they have been working, we have no expectation — or had no expectation — that they do not work,” said Baraka said. “All options are on the table, whatever course of action we need to take to rectify this.”

Newark had distributed more than 38,000 PUR filters. The city had hoped the filters would mitigate the lead problem while it pursued more long term solutions — including a new chemical treatment to control lead corrosion in pipes.

But to work effectively, the chemical — orthophosphate — must be flushed repeatedly through pipes to build up a protective layer against lead. City officials worry that, with bottled water to drink, residents will stop running water through the pipes.

“We need you to use your water,” Baraka said. “Flush your toilet. We need you to run your showers. That helps us get the orthophosphate into the pipes … In the meantime, you should run your water three to five minutes prior to using your filter, when you first turn the water on.”

The EPA and the city plan to conduct more testing as it distributes the bottled water. 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.

According to the EPA, lead is dangerous to children because their developing brains and nervous systems are especially sensitive to its damaging effects.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight