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Lead Crisis in Newark Raises Concerns About NYC’s Taps. Here Are the Facts.

Issue 252

Jenny Blair Nov 11

Last summer, more than 15,000 households in Newark, New Jersey, were forced to drink and cook with bottled water after a change in the city water supply’s acidity caused lead from the pipes connecting mains to individual buildings to leach into their tap water.

At least 10 percent of samples taken of the city’s water have exceeded the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion for almost three years. In the first six months of this year, the worst 10 percent exceeded 57 ppb, according to the New Jersey Department of Environment Protection.

Could New York City residents also be unknowingly drinking lead from their tap water? Some are. But New York has safeguards Newark didn’t, and residents have access to more information about their own water. That includes online maps showing which buildings are served by lead pipes, as well as free on-demand residential lead testing.

Lead exposure is particularly dangerous to children. It can delay their growth and mental development and may cause learning and behavioral problems, according to the New York City Department of Health. In adults, it can cause high blood pressure and brain, kidney and reproductive issues.

Illustration by Daniel Fishel.

What exactly happened in Newark? Could that happen here?

Water was improperly treated at the city’s Pequannock treatment plant. The outflow was corrosive enough to leach lead out of old pipes around the city.

The lead pollution catastrophe in Flint, Michigan, was also caused by corroding pipes. To save money, the emergency manager appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder after the state took control of the city’s finances switched from using Detroit’s water supply to pumping water from the Flint River. The city failed to treat that water to neutralize its corrosiveness.

In contrast, “New York City owns and maintains its water-supply system, and it is fiscally sound,” Tara Deighan, director of customer engagement at the city DEP, told The Indypendent in an email. “We are committed to transparency, regularly posting testing data on NYC OpenData, in reports, and communicating it to environmental stakeholders and citizens.”

OpenData includes a publicly searchable database of DEP’s lead-testing results around the city.

“As long as DEP is professional and scientific, the lead threat to New York City is minimal,” said Dan O’Flaherty, an economist at Columbia University who has written about Newark’s lead crisis in the Newark Star-Ledger. “Newark tested exactly 25 observations of Pequannock water between 2012 and 2016. New York tests 5,000 a year of its system.

“I don’t think [DEP’s] current management would come close to failing, because they’re real pros,” O’Flaherty added. “The real danger would be a major change for the worse in DEP management.”

How does New York City water get contaminated with lead?

When our water arrives in pipelines beneath city streets after a long journey from reservoirs upstate, it’s lead-free.

But despite preventive treatment at a plant, it can still pick up lead once it leaves the water main and travels through service lines and through buildings’ plumbing.

There are 130,000 privately-owned lead service lines in the city, the DEP estimates. Some homes’ pipes, fixtures, and solder contain lead as well. Building new lead service lines was legal in the city until 1961, as were patches to them until 2009, according to LeadFreeNYC.

Does my tap water contain lead? If so, what can I do?

City residents can check the NYC OpenData website to see if their building’s water is served by a lead service line (type “lead service line” at data.cityofnewyork.us).

Residents can call 311 and request a Lead in Drinking Water Test Kit. If the result scores higher than 15 ppb — you’re asked to confirm a high reading with a second test — the city offers residents a filter pitcher, according to Michael Liu of the DEP’s Lead Unit.

It’s important to know that the 15 ppb “action level” is controversial, as no level of lead exposure is considered safe. In Flint in 2014, one-sixth of water samples tested by Virginia Tech University researchers had more than 15 ppb of lead, and more than 40 percent had more than 5 ppb, which the researchers considered an indication of a “very serious” problem, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In New York, low-income building owners are eligible for financial help to replace private lead service lines. The state’s $20 million Lead Service Line Replacement Program has awarded New York City $5.3 million, according to its website, updated in August.

Deighan said the city DEP will begin replacing private lead service lines for low-income homeowners “this year.”

Besides water, where else can lead appear?

Water isn’t the only way children and adults can be exposed to lead. Old lead paint in buildings is a major problem, particularly if it is peeling and within reach of young children. Contaminated soil in backyards, gardens and parks is another potential source. Certain cosmetics from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, such as kohl and vermilion, may contain lead, and skin-lightening creams may also be contaminated, according to LeadFreeNYC.

Lead has also appeared in spices from South Asia and the country of Georgia; in Mexican snacks containing chili or tamarind pulp; in some Ayurvedic remedies; in jewelry and good-luck amulets and some metal toy parts; and in glazed decorative or handmade ceramics, according to the site. LeadFreeNYC offers tips for avoiding exposure.

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