For more than a week, thousands of residents of Newark, New Jersey, have been lining up, enduring midday summer heat, and waiting for free bottled water. Their tap water contains extremely high levels of lead. For years, the city has failed to reduce them. In reporting the complexity of Newark’s problem, the media has drawn comparisons to previous lead contamination crises in Flint, Michigan and the District of Columbia.
From a public health perspective, Newark stands apart.
According to experts who uncovered high lead levels in children’s blood in Flint and Washington, Newark is different because it will be nearly impossible to determine the health damage already done to kids. That’s because the contamination timeline is unclear, the effectiveness of efforts to combat the problem are in question, and, in recent years, federal laws have made it harder to obtain records containing critical data on blood lead levels.
Damage from lead poisoning is irreversible; there is nothing a person can do about past lead exposure. The consequences can be long-term behavioral, cognitive and physical problems.
The timeline for Newark’s water problem is murky.
“In Flint, we can pinpoint when the crisis began. But in Newark, it’s gone under the radar for a while. There’s been quite a bit of denial,” said Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who helped bring to light the severity of Flint’s water crisis in 2015.
Hanna-Attisha endured years of government officials publicly discrediting her patients’ blood lead results. In Washington, it took more than five years of lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for a whistleblower to obtain the data needed to analyze the impacts to kids under age 2. “I barely did it and it could not be done today,” says Marc Edwards, a civil engineer at Virginia Tech who helped blow the whistle on Washington’s lead contamination in the early 2000s.
Newark’s lead woes started making national headlines in 2016. The EPA provided The Washington Post with a timeline of the city’s water issue that starts at 2016. More lead measurement of concern popped up in 2017. According to people familiar with an ongoing lawsuit brought by a group of educators and the Natural Resources Defense Council, there’s evidence the city began effective and regular sampling protocols, as mandated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, only in 2017.
In other words, the beginning of the lead crisis coincides with the beginning of effective lead sampling.
Evidence discussed at a Thursday legal hearing raises the possibility that today’s problems may have roots going back to 1992. All large water systems in New Jersey were then supposed to do a study that, once approved by the state, would lay out a course of action for treating contaminated water. City officials have been unable to show the courts any document containing this critical 1992 approval. It’s possible Newark has been missing a state-approved water treatment plan since the 1990s.
Blood lead information for Newark’s children also will be hard to get.
Regulations have become stricter over the past decade. It’s now harder to access medical records through FOIA requests.
Additionally, there seems to be no independent, Newark-based medical professional who is willing to step forward with the data or, at the very least, an analysis.
“The key in Flint and D.C. was one person who had access to data that was independent of the cities and the agencies,” said Edwards. In the District, it was Dana Best who helped analyze data from Children’s National Medical Center. In Flint, Hanna-Attisha publicized data from Hurley Medical Center. No one like that has stepped forward in Newark.
Water-sourced lead effects are hard to identify, even with good data. According to Hanna-Attisha, lead has a 30-day half life in blood. Blood lead detection gets harder without regular exposure, even if damage to the nervous system has already occurred. “How much of lead comes from the water versus other sources really depends on the home and the kid. The most recent statement from EPA has water as the second-leading source of lead after paint,” said Hanna-Attisha.
Lastly — as demonstrated this past week — there’s ongoing confusion about the effectiveness of Newark’s existing lead relief programs.
Many parents received robocalls in 2017 and 2018 that “corrosion control” was addressing problems; the city said the water was safe, according to a Washington Post report. Yet a study published by the state this summer found that, in 2017, Newark’s toddlers and babies had the highest blood lead levels in the state, with 13 percent of their sample population having elevated, worrisome levels.
We also reported on the political theater that ensued after the EPA wrote a strongly worded letter to state and city officials about two city-provided water filters. The water filters, part of a temporary fix rolled out for Newark households in an area deemed most vulnerable, were faulty and motivated the EPA to recommend free bottled water for Newark residents.
In Flint, there was a robust in-home installation program for city-provided water filters. In Newark, the city simply dropped them off. Almost 40,000 filters were distributed to a population that had no experience installing them.
“The city is behind the ball a lot,” says Al Moussab, a history teacher in Newark’s public school system and a member of the Newark Education Workers Caucus, a plaintiff in the ongoing lawsuit against the city. “The city should have a robust plan to make sure people know how to use the filters. Poor instruction and education possibly could have led to this faulty filter problem.”
It’s too early to determine whether the faulty filters are emblematic of a program that has not protected residents since its 2018 launch. A sampling plan is still in preliminary stages. But it has sown confusion.
Shamika Thomas lives in the East Ward, a part of the city considered by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka as “not affected” by the lead problem. She is ineligible for free bottled water and yet, according to Thomas, her 6-year-old son has elevated blood lead levels.
“I’m so confused about what we are supposed to be doing here,” Thomas said.
In January and June, more than 10 percent of households in and around the East Ward reached lead levels the EPA deems worthy of intervention. “The city isn’t even recognizing problems with the Wanaque system,” the name for the water utility that services the East Ward, said Moussab. “They denied there was a problem there back in December but, at last week’s hearing, they said the problem was solved. That doesn’t make sense.”
According to Edwards, “damage has already been done” even though it may appear to residents the city is responding. This may explain why most parents still have not taken advantage of the city’s free blood lead testing for kids, tests that are key to reaching citywide public health conclusions.
The Safe Drinking Water Act put lead water reporting and enforcement in the hands of states. But no one is really accountable. Edwards put it bluntly: “No one goes to jail for having high lead in water. No one loses a paycheck.”
“The burden of environmental injustice,” said Hanna-Attisha, “falls unequally on children.”