US faces another water crisis caused by corrosive pipes

Newark, New Jersey, is in the middle of a water crisis. Much like the highly publicized Flint, Michigan, water crisis, the city has been battling elevated levels of lead in its water supply for years. And what is the cause? Corrosion.

The Newark water crisis
In 2017, officials found that over 10% of Newark households had twice the amount of lead in the water supply compared to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates, Time reported. The city then failed two more lead tests in December 2017 and June 2018, causing officials to provide 38,000 lead-safe water filters for residents and install a modern corrosion control treatment system in May 2019.

Despite these changes, recent tests in June and August 2019 indicated that the drinking water is still over the threshold mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to the city's website. In these recent tests, city officials found that a major water treatment plant's corrosion control system "became less effective at reducing the corrosion of lead pipes and resulted in rising lead levels in some homes with lead service lines throughout Newark," according to The Huffington Post.

Time stated that the city is now providing bottled water for drinking and cooking to around 15,000 residents, while a federal judge is determining whether the city must expand its provision of potable water.

According to the city government's notice, experts expect to see reduction in lead levels by the end of the year, but in the meantime, residents can reduce the risk of lead exposure by using bottled water, testing their water for free and not boiling tap water for use, as this practice does not reduce lead levels. City officials also urge parents or guardians to get their children's blood tested and identify and replace any lead service lines or plumbing fixtures.

Another Flint water crisis?
Obviously, the primary health concern caused by corrosive water pipes is the elevated presence of lead and copper in the drinking water, according to the Water Research Center. The lead particles get into the water supply after corrosion breaks down older or poorly monitored water pipelines.

With the Flint Water Crisis, tests conducted by the EPA and Virginia Tech found dangerous levels of lead in the water at residents' homes, well above the EPA limit.

CNN reported that since the crisis began, over a dozen lawsuits, including class-action suits, were filed against Flint and the state of Michigan. Other lawsuits targeted specific state and city officials who were responsible for the drinking water switch that lead to the crisis. Most lawsuits focus on receiving compensation for water bills and lead poisoning.

Despite the elevated levels in Newark, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said in a 2018 interview that the situation in Newark is not like the Flint crisis because "that's not what happened here," according to The Associated Press.

"In Flint they purposely did not put a corrosion control inhibitor in their water. Ours stopped working. That's a marked and clear difference," Baraka said, as quoted by the source. "What they did was purposeful and deliberate, to save money. Our corrosion control inhibitor stopped working; we found out it stopped working and we did something about it."

Recent statements from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Baraka focus more on the steps the city is taking to tackle this problem, including expanding its water filtration testing and water bottle distribution, Time reported. Murphy also reiterated the need for help at a federal level, saying "We don't have an unending supply of water bottles."

"Access to clean and safe drinking water is a fundamental right," Murphy said at the press conference. "The State and City's efforts, in tandem with University Hospital and our corporate partners, will ensure that Newark residents have access to bottled water."

In a press conference on August 14, Baraka highlighted the city's focus on vulnerable populations who are affected, saying, "our priority is the health and welfare of all Newark residents, particularly the very young, pregnant women, and the elderly."

Lead exposure can cause lasting health and cognitive issues
Even though no level of lead exposure is healthy to children or adults, young and unborn children are particularly susceptible to lead. According to Stanford Children's Health, lead exposure is more dangerous to children than adults because prolonged, high exposure can lead to damage of the brain and nervous system.

When children are exposed to high levels of lead, the most common symptoms include hearing issues, headaches and anemia. Exposure can also lead to damage to the brain and nervous system, behavioral problems and slowed growth. 

For adults, lead exposure is also incredibly harmful, especially for pregnant women or those who wish to become pregnant. Other problems include kidney damage, high blood pressure, digestive problems, nerve disorders and memory or concentration issues.

The situations in Newark and Flint highlight the importance of comprehensive, effective corrosion testing of water pipelines. Otherwise, city officials may face significant backlash and put their residents' in danger.