In the City of Newark, New Jersey, a lead crisis on the scale of Flint is now unfolding. Despite years of complaints by residents, and in direct disregard of federal state, and local laws, the City has exposed the people of Newark to dangerously high levels of lead in drinking water - levels capable of causing permanent, devastating damage to persons of all ages, and to children in particular.
Newark residents began to raise concerns about lead in their drinking water in 2016, when thirty Newark public schools were found to have elevated levels of lead in their water fountains and other water sources. The schools were disconnected from the City's water supply and allowed to reconnect only after committing to replace equipment and install filters at drinking water sources. Later that same year, Mayor Ras Baraka publicly assured Newark residents that lead in drinking water was not a City-wide problem. This statement has proved to be devastatingly false: As subsequent testing has shown, the scope of drinking water contamination extends well beyond Newark's public schools. Homes, businesses, and community and public buildings throughout Newark are affected.
After 2016, the City of Newark was required to test its drinking water for lead on a more frequent basis in accordance with the Lead and Copper Rule, a federal regulation that requires officials who own or operate water systems to test drinking water for harmful contaminants and to implement water treatment protocols that control for the presence of those contaminants. Beginning in January 2017, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection required Newark to take at least 100 drinking water samples every six months.
Under the Lead and Copper Rule, a city is required to take substantial, corrective action when more than 10% of its drinking water samples exceed a "lead action level" of 15 parts per billion. Significantly, this action level does not signify a minimum concentration at which lead in water begins to cause harm. The CDC has unequivocally stated that there, where lead is concerned, there is no safe level of exposure. Thus, any concentration of lead in water greater than 0 ppb is capable of causing harm. The significantly elevated "lead action level" is merely the level at which, once exceeded by 10% of water samples, a water system is required to take additional steps to protect its customers from lead exposure. It is a trigger of regulatory action - not a measure of safety.
More than 10% of samples taken by the City during each of the 2017 and 2018 testing periods exceeded the federal action level of 15 ppb. In other words, Newark's water system had knowledge of its action level exceedance as early as July 2017 and, upon notice of non-compliance by the Department of Environmental Protection, was required to begin abatement steps as early as September 2017. It failed to do so.
The most recent tests in Newark show that drinking water lead levels in 47.2% of houses exceed the federal action level. And yet, even this staggering percentage does not reflect the full scope of Newark's lead problem. Lead contamination at lower but still harmful (or as-yet undetected) concentrations affects an untold number of other homes, and countless Newark residents have certainly been exposed to lead-laced drinking water at schools, restaurants, workplaces, and other locations outside the home. In a city with 280,000 residents, this means that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people have likely been exposed to injurious levels of lead in water.
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