Lead in Our Water: Poisoning the Poor

Children play in spray fountains at the Essex County Riverfront Park in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, N.J., on Sunday, June 24, 2018. CREDIT: Bryan Anselm for The Natural Resources Defense Council

In the spring of 2016, reports showed that schools in Newark, New Jersey had high levels of lead in their water. But besides shutting off contaminated water outlets and supplying some filters, that was it – there was no further information, no more repairs. Students, education workers, and the community were kept in the dark while they continued to drink contaminated water in the city.

In 2017, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reported the findings from a city-wide water test in Newark. The average lead level of households tested was 27 parts per billion (ppb), more than five times the federal limit. And newer tests have shown even higher levels, with some residences as high as 182 ppb. According to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, any level of lead above five ppb is considered dangerous. Lead can contribute to impaired brain functioning and can affect a person throughout their life. Lead can even be absorbed into calcium in bones and leach back into the blood supply in times of stress.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, high lead levels require city officials to begin digging up and replacing all the old lead service lines that run from the city’s main water lines to private residences. But city officials have continued to deny there is even a problem, claiming that Newark’s water is safe and uncontaminated. It’s true that the water entering Newark has safe levels of lead, but once it enters the old Newark lead pipes, it becomes contaminated. City officials have tried to make residents responsible for replacing these service lines but this is ridiculous. Over 30% of people in Newark live in poverty and could never afford the $1,000 or more to replace these pipes.

Rather than forcing working families to pay for problems they did not cause, the solutions are obvious. The city officials should pay for all residents to get their water tested, and wherever lead levels are above 5 ppb, the pipes should be replaced. And until their water is free of lead, the city should have to pay for safe drinking water to all residents. The people of Newark shouldn’t have to pay a dime. There is more than enough wealth in Newark to pay for this solution. But, of course, Newark politicians don’t want to touch the wealth of corporations and the rich.

This problem goes beyond Newark. In 2007, Baltimore schools were found to have lead-contaminated drinking fountains. There too, city officials refused to spend the $3.3 million to fix the fountains, and instead purchased bottled water for over ten years at a cost of about $500,000 per year. They have never fixed the problem throughout the city. In 2014, lead-contaminated water was also found to have poisoned thousands of residents in Flint, Michigan. Since then reports of water contaminated with lead and other poisons have been rolling in from Detroit and other cities in Illinois, Ohio, California, Wisconsin and other states. In cities across the country, lead water pipes were the standard prior to the 1920s and continued to be installed until the 1950s. So, many more cities across the country still have lead pipes with contaminated water even though tests may not have been conducted yet.

It is clear what needs to be done to address this national problem. But we live in a system that is concerned only with saving profits, not saving lives. And city, state, and federal officials are willing to protect the wealth of the rich even if it means poisoning the poor.