Newark's Lead Contamination Woes Continue

As the full extent of Newark, New Jersey's lead contamination problem emerges, residents are doing a lot of waiting — waiting in line for bottled water and waiting around for officials to give them a solution

Newark's Lead Contamination Woes Continue

There’s a lead contamination emergency making national headlines and drawing comparisons to the Flint Water Crisis, and it’s in Newark, New Jersey. For more than a week, thousands of residents in the city have lined up to collect bottled water because their tap water is unsafe.

But public health experts are saying Newark’s crisis is different than Flint’s, because in Flint there was a clear event — switching the city’s water source to the Flint River — that triggered the problem. In Newark, no one knows how long it has been going on, or the estimated level of damage done to public health.

The need for bottled water is so great in Newark — the state’s second-largest city — that neighboring cities like Plainfield are collecting donations to deliver. Bottled water distribution is ongoing for residents with lead service lines living in the western half of Newark who are serviced by the Pequannock Water Treatment Plant. Meanwhile, a federal judge is set to decide whether to make the city expand the effort to include eastern residents.

Newark officials have known for years there is cause for concern. As far back as 2009, city officials estimated children in Newark were affected by lead poisoning at three times the rate as the rest of the state — a fact at the time largely attributed to older housing stock and an industrial past in the city.

The city shut off water fountains in 30 schools in 2016 due to concerns over elevated lead levels. When concerns were raised about lead in the city’s tap water in 2018, Mayor Ras Baraka claimed it was nothing more than a political stunt. But it was only a matter of months before he was on board, calling on President Donald Trump to provide federal assistance, writing that “dangerously high levels of lead are entering homes and our children’s blood through lead service lines despite the fact that any level of lead can damage the developing brains of young children.”

Shortly after that, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy called aging infrastructure a national problem that requires a federal solution in his State of the State Address. “More than 1.5 million residents — north, central, and south, rural and urban — are currently serviced by water with elevated lead levels,” Murphy said. “We must leverage every opportunity to build a modern water infrastructure network that ensures the delivery of clean water to every child, and every family.”

Then last October, the city distributed 40,000 water filters to residents with lead service lines to combat the contamination, but recent reports have shown those weren’t as effective as officials had hoped.

With recent tests showing lead levels steadily rising in 2019, it’s not clear what the city is planning to do next — Murphy says he won’t declare a State of Emergency over the issue, and Baraka has stated that the city isn’t interested in turning water service over to an outside entity — but the temporary fix appears to be bottled water.

“The only thing we can do is buy water,” Ralph Wright, a retired taxi driver, tells The New York Times. “I mean I’ve got taxes, water bills, insurances, heating bills. I can’t afford to replace my pipes too.”


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