Post Flint: Water safety woes across the U.S.

Mention the city “Flint” Michigan and many remember a city water system dangerously contaminated with lead and a government response that failed residents. But what you may not know is cities in every state are grappling with water safety problems– some worse than Flint. Scott Thuman reports from one such place…Newark, New Jersey…where there are national implications.

Sabre Bee doesn’t like to take chances. The filter on her kitchen faucet, just one element of a complex defense she’s designed to get the cleanest water she can. 

Sabre: where the water comes in from the street into my home, I have a filter there. I have a point of use filter here. And then I filter that water into these pitchers. 

Scott: So you triple filter it? 

Sabre: I triple filter the water, yeah. 

Scott: You don’t believe that just one is enough? 

Sabre: Absolutely not. 

Her home, one of the thousands in this city affected by a crisis in the water system, caused by dangerously high levels of lead. In the shadow of America’s financial capital and the gleaming towers of lower Manhattan, Newark is the largest city in New Jersey. The old decaying infrastructure mean it has long had a lead problem, but back in 2017 the levels in parts of the water system spiked. 

Marc Edwards: Like most water crises, it started out with good intentions. They tried to change their water chemistry to reduce the amount of carcinogens that are present to meet EPA regulations, and it backfired because that change lowering the pH caused lead to come off the pipes and contaminate the water supply. 

Marc Edwards is Professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech. He’s been working on the problem of lead in water for more than 30 years. Edwards is best known as the scientist who brought national attention to the city of Flint, Michigan, when its lead levels rose dramatically in 2014 and 2015. 

Marc Edwards: The two are similar in that the lead levels that were in the water were very high. Actually Newark’s were slightly higher than Flint, and probably affected a bigger population. 

Lead and water have been associated for milennia. The Romans used it for pipes and roofs, and the English word “plumber” comes from the latin word for lead. But lead’s dangers have also been understood for a long time. There’s no safe level for it in the human body. In children, it can slow growth, and cause learning problems. 

Marc Edwards: It lasts forever, it bends, if there’s frost, they would never have to replace it and it doesn’t leak. It’s really the greatest plumbing material, except for the fact that it poisons and kills people. 

In the US, lead was widely used in the 19th century, but concern about health effects encouraged some cities to restrict it in the 1920s. It wasn’t until 1971 that lead in paint was outlawed. Lead pipes were finally banned in 1986. With about 13 million lead service lines nationally, Newark and Flint aren’t exceptions – there are towns and cities all across the US with potentially similar problems. 

In Newark, as in Flint, Sabre says, city leaders began by downplaying the problem. 

Sabre: They told people, “Keep calm and carry on. There’s no problem here. There’s nothing to see here. The water’s not poison. You’re fine.” 

In April of 2018, the city posted this notice on its web site, saying the water was safe to drink and was not contaminated, but that headline isn’t accurate. Test results published by the city itself showed lead levels in some homes well above the federal action level. 

Scott: The truth at some point was that the water is unsafe to drink, right? 

Kareem Adeem: The truth at some point, if you had a lead service line from your house and there’s a possibility that lead may have been leaching into your house water system, if you had a lead service line. Everybody in the city of Newark don’t have a lead service line. 

Kareem Adeem is the acting head of Water and Sewere for the city of Newark, says the city has responded well, even if communication could have been better. 

Scott: What would you have said differently? 

Kareem Adeem: Just make it, the terms that we have to use at times when we explain or something, everybody don’t come random, they don’t understand. You get bogged down in the 30 page, 30 pages of explaining what happened when you just straightforward, this is what’s going on, this is what we plan to do.

The plan in began with free water filters and starting slowly to replace old lead pipes – work that was projected to take a decade. Then in August last year, a breakthrough. The city got $120 million from the county and it’s now aiming to replace all lead service lines in just 30 months – one of the biggest and fastest pipe replacement programs ever in the US. 

Kareem Adeem: We were replacing a little over 85 lead service lines a day. We just awarded two more contractors on January the second. We’re hoping to boost that number up to about a hundred a day by the end of the month. 

Scott: This isn’t just a Newark problem. 

Adeem: It’s a national problem-

Scott: This is a national problem. You’re suggesting, remove all the lead pipes everywhere.

Kareem Adeem: Remove all the lead pipes everywhere. Upgrade the water and sewer infrastructure.. This is the United States of America. The richest country in the world. We can do it. We’re doing it right now in the Newark. We’re replacing lead service pipes. So if the Newark can do it, the country can do it. 

Even some of the city’s strongest critics agree the response is now moving faster than they could have ever expected. But for Sabre, it’s forever changed how she feels about water. 

Scott: After they replace these lines, how will you feel? 

Sabre: As long as I have some test results, as long as science supports it, I am fine with it. I’d still be filtering my water. Oh, from here on out, for the rest of my life, wherever I go, I’m going to have a water filtration system wherever I live. Because this is terrifying. Terrifying.

Even replacing all the lead service lines may not solve the problem. Even some modern plumbing systems using new materials can leave trace amounts of lead. Still, it’s worth pointing out that the bans on lead in gasoline, paint and lead pipes have helped drastically reduce the amount of lead in our bodies over the last 20 or 30 years. But these old pipes in towns and cities across the country are a problem for all of us.

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