Corrosion in Newark, New Jersey, water lines causing lead contamination

Add Newark, New Jersey, to the list of urban areas experiencing lead contamination in drinking water due to water main corrosion. According to NJ.com, just as in the case of Flint, Michigan, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental nonprofit, is suing the city and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in response.

NJTV News reported that the city's lead levels have been on the rise since 2017. This spring, it was discovered that about half of the 159 homes tested showed elevated lead levels as a result of the previous anti-corrosion treatment failing. Particularly hard hit was the area of Newark whose water comes from the Pequannock reservoir. Newark switched chemicals on May 7 as an emergency measure to solve the problem.

Background of the problem

According to a FAQ document issued by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Jan. 7, the DEP had learned in October 2018 that its former corrosion-preventing chemical treatment no longer worked. As a result, in the service lines carrying water to homes, the interior protective coatings were wearing off and depositing lead into the water. The City of Newark then informed the state that it would deal with the issue by switching to a new corrosion control treatment that would be more effective in the long term.

In a later story, NJ.com reported that the city's lead service line inventory showed some Newark water pipes dated back to the 1880s. The DEP FAQ statement also made it a point to reassure residents that lead was not present at the source, in Newark's reservoirs. 

Public media outlet PRI.org quoted Erik Olson, NRDC senior director of health and food, who said "Newark has pretty serious lead contamination, which has been going on for at least a couple of years. We know that at least since January of 2017, the city had levels of lead that far exceed the EPA's 'action level,' as it's called. A lot of kids, especially, are being put at risk from that."

PRI.org elaborated on this point, saying that no level of lead is safe, and research has proven that even low levels can be harmful to a young child's developing brain.

woman drinking bottled waterNewark, New Jersey, is the latest U.S. city dealing with lead in tap water caused by corrosion in old water mains and service lines.

What is Newark doing to get the lead out?

City officials have been trying to come up with viable solutions for the lead problem. Tiffany Stewart, legal counsel for Newark's water and sewer department, told NJ.com that the city has determined that there is an issue with lead in the water, and the department is working on ways to solve it. The report also stated that Newark officials are firm in their assertion that Newark's reservoirs, the source of the water, are free of lead. They maintain that the real problem is the 15,000 lead service lines going from water mains to residences, along with an old infrastructure, which is responsible for the elevated levels of lead in Newark's tap water.  

PRI.org said that as an interim measure, Newark began distributing water filters to 40,000 households across the city. According to the Olson, however, filters would be only a temporary measure for the vast majority of homes. A better long-term solution, he suggested, was a two-fold approach that included using a treatment method that prevents lead from leaching out of pipes and removing old lead pipes causing the problem.

The new anti-corrosion treatment that Newark started adding to water lines May 7 is orthophosphate, a food-grade additive already in use at the city's other water service area of Wanaque. Water and Wastes Digest notes that orthophosphate is also being used by other large cities across the country to reduce the lead in tap water.

The problem, of course, is not just a local one. The NRDC estimated that 18 million people nationwide are at risk of lead exposure from their water. Excavating streets, pulling out large networks of lead pipes and installing new ones is costly, but some cities have already done it and others are beginning the process, Olson said. The good news is, many newly elected members of Congress have spoken out about the problem, urging investment in the country's drinking water infrastructure.