‘The Next Flint,’ and America’s Problem with Lead in Its Water

By Molly Enking, a news fellow at Grist. Originally published at Grist

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: A U.S. city is facing a public health crisis, after years of denying that it had a problem with lead in its drinking water supply. In 2016, that would have been a reference to Flint, Michigan. This week, it’s Newark, New Jersey, where city officials on Sunday resorted to handing out bottled water to affected residents.

Lead has long been recognized as a potent neurotoxin. The health effects of lead exposure in children include lowered IQ and increased risk of behavioral disorders. Exposed adults are more likely to develop a slew of health problems including nerve, kidney, and cardiovascular issues. Pregnant women and babies are especially vulnerable, as even low levels are associated with serious, irreversible damage to developing brains and nervous systems.

No amount of lead is considered “safe,” but the federal government has set a limit of 15 parts per billion in drinking water. At one point, tests in Flint revealed lead levels at over 100 ppb. In July, a test showed Newark water lead levels at 55 ppb. In both cases residents say the city’s denials and delays came at a cost to their wellbeing.

“The mayor keeps saying that this isn’t like Flint,” Newark resident Shakima Thomas told Grist way back in November. “It is the same as Flint in the way that they tried to cover it up. We were victimized by this administration. They gamble with our health. They put politics first before justice.”

And that pattern appears to be continuing. Some experts say they already have a good idea of where the “next, next Flint” might be.

How Newark Became “The Next Flint”

The warning signs have been in Newark since 2016 — the same year Flint’s crisis hit the front pages. City officials have long denied it has a major lead problem with its drinking water, insisting the issue was limited to buildings with aging infrastructure — though they did shut water fountains down in more than 30 schools, providing bottled water instead. A city-wide water testing plan was set up in 2017 – and over the following 18 months, multiple tests showed more than 10 percent of homes in the city had lead levels exceeding the 15-parts-per-billion federal limit.

Last fall, the city began giving out water filters to some 40,000 residents. But residents complained that they were not told how necessary the filters were, or were unclear on how to properly install them. Then last week, the Environmental Protection Agency sent the city a letter citing serious concerns about drinking water safety, saying the filters Newark residents were given may never have worked properly. The EPA tested water filtered through the city-provided filters and lead levels still came out above the federal limit.

“We are unable at this time to assure Newark residents that their health is fully protected when drinking tap water filtered through these devices,” the EPA’s letter read.

When the city began handing out bottled water this weekend, some residents waited in line for water for hours, only to find out it was only being passed out to people who live in certain areas. (The National Resource Defense Council brought a federal lawsuit against the city to force Newark to deliver bottled water to expand its bottled water giveaway to residents who are pregnant or have children age 6 or younger in the eastern part of the city.) Efforts hit another snag when officials realized the bottled water had expired and had to temporarily stop the handouts.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka issued a joint statement Monday, calling on federal officials to help. “We take this very seriously,” they said. “We want to be out ahead of this.”

The Next “Next Flint”

While Newark currently holds the dubious moniker of “the next Flint,” advocates say another city is in the running for the title: Pittsburgh. Lead concerns in the Steel City have been bubbling up for years now, culminating with a major lawsuit brought against the city by Pittsburgh United and the NRDC that was settled earlier this year.

In 2014, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority changed which chemicals they use in the public water pipes. (Chemicals can interact with the lead pipes in different ways, and in some cases, cause corrosion of lead pipes.) By 2016, the number of resident requests for water testing had risen significantly, according to local media. The problem wasn’t publicly acknowledged until 2017, when the city made a plan to distribute water filters to some residents. (That part took through 2018.)

In February 2019, the NRDC and Pittsburgh United settled their lawsuit against the city. The terms? The city agreed to replace thousands of lead pipes, provide all low-income residents with free water filters, and to prioritize action for homes where children live. Lead levels still exceed the federal standard but have been falling over this past year.

“The time lag is extremely serious — and it has a real impact on not only the health of families, but also a huge psychological impact once they find out,” said Dimple Chaudhary, an NRDC attorney and lead counsel in cases against both Flint and Pittsburgh. “I’ve spoken to mothers who are absolutely devastated when they find out they may have fed their baby lead-tainted formula.”

A Familiar Pattern

So why do these lead problems take so long for cities to acknowledge?

Chaudhary, who is advising on the NRDC and Newark Education Workers Caucus’ lawsuit against Newark (filed in early 2019), says she sees a pattern with lead contamination crises. First, community members suspect there is a problem, but may not have access to all the related information due to a lack of transparency by public officials. As residents advocate their case to city officials, weak regulations, poorly presented data, and low political will can lead to belated city acknowledgment of the problem. And even when both residents and city officials agree that something must be done, finding and implementing a solution can be chaotic.

“You have confusion about the state of the water, you have mixed messages about what people should do, and then, if things go well, you may have a court or part of the government step in and try to fix it,” she said. “But you’ll see in a lot of cases that the damage has already been done, both to people’s health and the public trust.”

Experts agree that issues with collecting and accessing data are a big part of the problem. It starts with weak regulations: The EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, part of the Safe Drinking Water Act, only requires cities to test for the two metals every three years. And officials are only required to sample about 10 percent of residences. And even that limited data can be hard to access.

“There are technical limitations in place that seem designed to frustrate access to the data,” said Laura Pangallozzi, a visiting professor of geography at Binghamton University. She explained that the publically available data sets on the EPA website are hard to use without programming skills. This can prevent people (even scientists) from being able to look at lead levels in drinking water nationally to identify outliers. And, according to Pangallozzi, some states don’t report their data at all.

Even assuming a city becomes aware of a lead contamination issue, officials do not always let the public know in a timely or efficient manner. Cities are not required to report lead levels to the public until lead levels hit 15 parts per billion — the threshold at which cities must begin corrosion control measures, like adding chlorine to the water to prevent lead seeping in through the pipes, or, if the state requires it, replace lead pipes in the city water infrastructure.

“How officials roll out the public education requirement will have a big impact on how many people know about it,” Pangallozzi said. “Officials have choices in these matters, and it is such a negative for the reputation of a place, there is going to be natural reluctance to publicize.”

Given the proper incentive though, she said, change can happen fast — like when Washington, D.C. discovered it had a lead problem back in 2004. “They got that taken care of very quickly, by comparison,” she said, “because there were members of Congress drinking the water.”

As for a future “next Flint,” Newark and Pittsburgh may only be the tip of the lead pipe. According to an investigative report commissioned by Congress, about 2 percent of public water systems across the country exceeded the federal limit on lead between 2014 and 2016 — and that was with less than half of states reporting back.

“Even Flint’s highest levels were not atypical for water systems that have problems,” Pangallozzi said.

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24 comments

  1. Rod

    What a cold mess all this is.
    If a human can’t live without water, I’d expect ensuring a safe water supply to be a priority and policy would reflect that priority:

    Given the proper incentive though, she said, change can happen fast — like when Washington, D.C. discovered it had a lead problem back in 2004. “They got that taken care of very quickly, by comparison,” she said, “because there were members of Congress drinking the water.”

    But–since every action carries a reaction I would just point out that 40,000 residents drinking 6 ea 20oz bottles of water a day(+\- 1gallon) yields about 240,000 empty plastic bottles per day or——1,750,000 empty bottles and caps per week.
    If I were mayor or council member there, I would have to find a way to visually display all that–like in the park or at a major highway intersection or similar.
    One problem–many points of problem tangency.

    Reply
  2. Samuel Conner

    I’m guessing that there will be a burgeoning business in testing for lead in tap-water, and probably loads of less than ethical enterprises taking advantage of the valid concerns of the public.

    Reply
    1. JohnnySacks

      It’s financial alchemy – we’ve finally succeeded in turning lead into gold. As a W2 wage slave living in an 1888 house, how does one even begin to pay for the sins of our fathers’ corporate malfeasance? Replacing copper with pex as repairs are made, permits be damned, replaced windows, painted trim, and trying to do right without setting my life’s savings on fire. Short of a full gut down to the studs inside, removal of any painted wood on the outside, and replacement of topsoil a foot deep and 6 foot wide around the entire house, there is no effective way to remove all the lead.

      Reply
      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Do even the interior walls have lead paint? Usually it is more frequent on walls in places like the kitchen and bathroom and then trim, doors and windows; that is, places subject to frequent moisture (people used to frequently wipe down trim and doors with a moist rag for instance, occasionally even soap and water, and a gloss or semi-gloss combined with lead paint was very long lasting).

        As with anything that has lead paint, taking it down to the studs (removing it all together) is certainly the most effective way to eliminate lead, especially long term, but the devil is really in the details and it’s not recommended for the amateur. If one doesn’t properly contain the area and then properly clean it after demolition but before rebuilding, for instance, the problem can persist insidiously. Lead poisoning can occur with minuscule amounts, in the form of dust for instance, and infants are especially vulnerable. And I haven’t even touched on the danger to others that a poorly executed lead abatement/removal project can involve.

        That said, I completely agree that the prohibitive expense of professionals often means either taking matters into your own hands or just not getting it done and doing so with out bankrupting yourself in the process is yet another challenge. Getting new windows as you have done is spot on – no way to save old ones short of excessive professional work. When necessary, lead abatement paints, though not easy to apply, can be part of a stop gap strategy when you run out of steam/money and need to get by for a while in some areas.

        Most States offer lead abatement classes that are quite good to get a feel for the issues. They can be very worth taking even though they are usually not full removal level instruction.

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        1. Brooklin Bridge

          And I haven’t even touched on the danger to others that a poorly executed lead abatement/removal project can involve.
          And I haven’t even touched on the danger to others, such as neighbors, that a poorly executed lead abatement/removal project can involve during the work.

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      2. skippy

        Your statement about lead in the soil adjacent to the house is spot on. Since 90%+ of my work is on interior VJ and exterior weatherboard houses that used lead based paints – everything was oil base enameled. Hence any old school burning and scraping or open sanding during its life [repaints every 10 years at a minimum for a maintained house] means the soil is permeated with lead and other heavy metals let alone persistent organic chemicals.

        This is compounded by the houses that were not maintained due to areas becoming low socioeconomic rentals, where paint completely failed and flaked off sometimes 10 layers thick onto the ground. This just gets mowed or waked upon until its fine particulate and spread around the entire yard and compacted into the soil and garden beds. So even if after a period of time since lead based paint was used and say yard was re-turfed or soil accumulation from grass growing the drama is any digging will disturb the the old lead layer.

        Now here in Brisbane the old deceased estates and rentals are hot property for young professionals and higher paid trades people seeking the inner city rings lifestyle, not to mention access to better schools and services. This means there is a boom in renovation of these old houses, per se the one I’m working has 3 houses on the block being worked on at the same time. Not to mention 3 houses up a bloke with young family popped over to ask for a quote [impressed at the work being done – got 4 hits on the last house] on his place since the western wall is in full fail mode and looking to get a colour change for the whole house.

        Now I use professional dust extraction with sanders [festool] for paint dust removal and visqueen black plastic to capture falling chips then remove them from site, but this does noting to remedy any historical residue. The thing is I’m an outlier for most of this work is done by cowboys seeking a quick short term profit and don’t use dust extraction or use cheap shop vacuums let alone use them correctly, nor do they use ground cover – luck to use old cloth drop sheets. Heck most don’t even use personal PPE face masks with proper filters and if they do have a face mask don’t change filters when necessary. Not that most of this is left to the individuals responsibility …. but hay … markets …

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        1. skippy

          Should have added that remodels more than not are lifted to make space for a lower enclosed ground floor to the house [previously on about 4-6ft stumps], necessitating earth works to poor a concrete slab and adjacent drive way.

          So there you go the entire soil foot print is disturbed, not to mention new landscaping.

          Reply
  3. russell1200

    It didn’t involve lead in water, but recently the State of North Carolina took over the Town of Eureka (less than 300 people) because they were slowly collapsing under the cost of maintaining their water treatment system.

    From what I read, it was not intended as a hostile takeover, but simply a way to right the ship. I think there is about 50 other towns in North Carolina in similar circumstances.

    During the Great Depression, a number of municipalities went bust, so North Carolina switched to a more Sate Level legislative system. It has it’s negatives, but it does work well in this type of situation.

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  4. rps

    Add Chicago to the list. While you’re at it, send a thank you note to Indiana’s major manufacturers residing on Lake Michigan shores who are busily dumping toxins including Hexavalent Chromium into our main source of drinking water. With multiple violations, BP, Cargill, US Steel, Arcelormittal, and Union Carbide get a EPA slap on the hand with a wink wink nod fine and a clean up order for their continued toxin stew disbursement into the lake; a source for millions drinking water.

    This became public by chance thanks to dedicated Lake Surfers who chase the waves near Whiting and Portage in northern Indiana, an area of Lake Michigan they refer to as “Southend.” They were breaking out into rashes and infections after surfing.

    The then City of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel handed out a $2mil contract for distributing zerowater system to a select few. Water metered residents (not everyone is metered) were sent a letter offering a free water kit and lead-free zero water pitcher and filters (including the elephant in the room- hexavalent chromium listed on filter removal).

    Reply
    1. notabanker

      https://dailymedia.case.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/07095422/IIC-Lead-Report-.pdf

      Cleveland has a huge problem too. The research is attributing it mostly to lead paint, which is interesting given Sherwin Williams is HQ’d there, facing multiple lawsuits and has known about the dangers of lead paint since the 1930’s. The centennial celebration should be swell.

      Of course City Council couldn’t be bothered to address it because they were busy dividing up the $100M handout to Dan Gilbert for a new arena facade, but now they are right on it and will have a report out sometime this year, maybe. It’s not like they knew about this problem in 2016 or anything.

      https://www.clevescene.com/scene-and-heard/archives/2016/11/21/cleveland-school-districts-current-crisis-high-levels-of-lead-found-in-water

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      1. Carla

        Actually, on July 24, 2019, Cleveland City Council passed “historic” legislation “aimed at significantly reducing the number of children lead poisoned in their homes.” Implementation is supposed to begin within 18 months.

        https://www.cleveland.com/metro/2019/07/cleveland-city-council-passes-historic-lead-poisoning-prevention-law.html

        Too bad Cleveland can’t sue local paint peddler Sherwin-Williams as California cities and counties have done. The Ohio legislature passed a law prohibiting Ohio cities from following suit.

        Reply
        1. Brooklin Bridge

          Small landlord and homeowners are most negatively affected by this sort of legislation and end up bearing the brunt of the “clean up” expense. Since abatement is so expensive, this often means people go to major lengths to avoid it. It can easily mean loosing your house – and usually one doesn’t get any meager state or local reimbursements/assistance until after the job (and thus the up-front expense) is complete.

          Meantime, the pols go around bragging about how they’ve solved yet another problem, in this case, home ownership.

          Reply
    2. Freethinker

      And then Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, suddenly suspended water meter Installations effective on or around June 28 on concerns that one out of five HHs with meters experienced lead spikes above EPA limits. 165,000 city residents have meters installed. Chicago is providing them with a free pitcher along with six filters and encouraging water testing.

      The meters give smaller HHs and water conservers an opportunity to lower water usage fees. So the mayor’s decision to suspend water meter installation will be financially disadvantageous for many. On the other hand, progressive Mayor Lightfoot campaigned on no more water shutoffs for delinquencies.

      Have read several news reports on the elevated lead level risk with meters but no good explanation about how this could happen. Haven’t seen reports of similar problems elsewhere.

      Reply
    1. skippy

      Actually metal age people … but then attrition due to illness or war meant that toxicity was never a broad social issue, propensity for families to facilitate trades as a narrow group protecting its trade secrets [hence the term the mysteries] along with birth death rates meant it was never an imperative.

      Sorta like employing conquistadors by the Spanish from impoverished areas to facilitate taking wealth off others due to incentives of instant riches to uplift ones family – you just have to murder a few to get it ….

      Reply
  5. d

    While we can gripe about the choices fore fathers made, its not strictly from greed (as it is today) but from lack of knowledge. Just like putting radium on watches.

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      IIRC, toxicity of lead has been known since at least the early Roman Republic or even before the Rome had kings. That’s over three thousand years. The only marginal unknown was just how small the dose could be to cause significant harm and also just how easily and widespread lead from gasoline could go.

      The companies that sold or used lead successfully fought for most of a century to stop the banning of it at all levels of government. The first product that they tried to ban lead from was pipes and paint in the earliest part of the 20th century. Lead paint itself only stopped being sold in the 1970s/80s and only after leaded gasoline was banned.

      And I am sure everyone will be surprised to know that the most common source of serious lead poisoning is public water fountains especially from older schools.

      So, no. The knowledge about the widespread lead problem in American water has been known since the 19th century, but who wants to spend money? Especially as it usually, but not always, just affected the poor.

      Reply
  6. Marc Andelman

    it goes way beyond Newark. Not incidentally, this problem can be fixed inexpensively. All that is needed is a technology that does the following. 1. Cheap. 2. fail safe. 3. Effective. 4. Generates little to no waste or waste water. 5. Does not need to be operated, ie. works like an appliance.

    How would you do that?
    By engineering a product from readily available technologies. Newark gave away P&G PUR Filters in idiocracy fashion, catering to a large company that has a fiduciary duty to cheat customers, employees, etc., in favor of shareholders. Large companies are buying back their stock and, devoting zilch to product development.

    I could steer people into the right direction, but it is not worth the bother. There is no one with analytical skills who has a charter to actually fix a problem like this. Bill Gates , and other water NGOs, need to hire scientists, and, as an aside, send their WASH program to Seattle and San Francisco. No wonder people are defecating in the streets. These problems are no longer third world, or, we are no longer a developed country in important respects.

    Reply
  7. cat sick

    Interesting to read Jack Londons “People of the Abyss” which has some horrifying descriptions of the health of people working in lead paint factories in London 100+ years ago, it was basically known to be a death sentence but povery dictated that people did it ….

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      The room where the initial production of leaded gasoline was done was called the “Death Chamber” by workers at the refinery. IIRC, it was only a very few months before insanity and usually death happened. It was no secret to the oil company.

      Reply
  8. Mike Smitka

    Back in 1971 Detroit had a grant to do a lead and rat/garbage survey of the city. I was part of the rat team, all of us were newly graduated high school students. Every block we examined had rats – all it took was one family feeding their dog in their back yard, they weren’t indoor pets back in those days. (I think we covered almost all of the city, including high-income neighborhoods – almost all of the city had alleys down the center of the block, and where present garbage trucks went down the alleys not the streets.) It was bizarre to stand in an alley, chatting with a resident who boasted about how good a “ratter” their dog was while we could see signs of active rat residence under the doghouse. People tended not to hang out in alleys after dark, so really had no idea how omnipresent vermin were.

    I’m not sure whether the lead teams looked at water; I know they had a portable device to check for lead paint. The results are probably available somewhere, but I never saw them, and I admit to not thinking of the issue when tearing down drywall in a local pre-WWII house.

    As to lead in drinking water, my son-in-law is a public health environmental engineer working on water systems, and we’ve spent an hour or two talking about lead. Lead oxidizes quickly (which is why we have lead batteries in our cars), so pipes have a coating and aren’t intrinsically unsafe. Ditto the lead-containing solder used until quite recently for joining copper pipes. Changing water treatment chemicals is a known issue, as are inexpensive countermeasures. It’s very basic knowledge for anyone involved in such systems. City-wide problems should never occur without active malfeasance.

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  9. oaf

    There’s another widespread toxicity issue, yet to be addressed to my satisfaction: PFAS/PFOS in composted sewage sludge provided to commercial and residential users…it has shut down at least one farm here (in Maine), and the state authorities have decided that it is still fine to keep providing it!…How much locally produced food is grown with this chemical in it? Food providers should have to disclose if their products have been grown with this stuff; so consumers can have a choice whether to be part of this long-term experiment. once it is in you; it is allegedly in you forever…It seems a convenience to municipalities to sell it….but at what cost to society?
    My understanding is that lead in the body can treated with chelation; but the PFOS/PFAS cannot . Save us!
    Balancing ph and killing microbes is not enough; think what people put down the drains to the treatment plant.

    Reply
  10. d

    Isn’t this an out growth of the contract on America? Seems like one of the provisions was that water rules were too strict..and costly. So they had to be made easier to do..and cheaper too

    Reply

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