Lead in Water Supply Worries Residents

The crisis in Flint has made water quality front-page news. How does Jersey’s supply stand up to scrutiny?

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has captured the nation’s attention. In that old industrial city of about 100,000 people, corrosive river water caused lead from aging pipes to enter the water supply, creating a public health hazard. Coverage of the crisis raised concern about water supplies throughout the country.

With the revelation that 30 Newark schools contained lead in their water, it begs the question: How safe is Jersey’s water? We assume that the government and our suppliers are monitoring the water supply for lead and other toxins. Folks in Flint likely made the same assumption. But the situation in Flint reminds us that we need to pay closer attention to public health matters.

“When it comes to the safety of our drinking water, we need to have an honest and open public dialogue across the country,” says Rich Henning, senior VP of communications for Suez, a private water company serving seven New Jersey counties. Such a dialogue has not occurred, says Henning, since Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972—when Richard Nixon was president.

While the federal government gives us water safety guidelines, it’s up to the individual states to deal with potential problems. In New Jersey, the state Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for monitoring our fresh, marine and ground waters and assessing water quality. Henning says the DEP has been quick to take action when needed.

New Jersey’s legislators recently weighed in on the state’s water situation and the role of the federal government. Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-Passaic), along with senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, plan to reintroduce the Sustainable Water and Infrastructure Act, which would help fund repairs to the nation’s water infrastructure by offering tax breaks on government-backed bonds. Menendez introduced the original bill in 2011.

But that doesn’t address the nation’s immediate concerns. In fact, some New Jersey municipalities already face a threat from contaminated water. “The older a municipality is, the more likely they have water lines and fixtures that contain lead,” says Chris Sturm, managing director for water and policy, at New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that advocates for smart growth. Sturm adds, “The more affluent the community, the more likely they have the [monetary] reserves to replace those lines or have done so already.”

Sturm says citizens need to be more aware of the policies of their water departments and utilities and demand transparency. Some, Sturm says, provide great role models. “There are many utilities in New Jersey that are environmental champions,” Sturm explains. “A few examples are Atlantic County Utilities Authority and the Camden County Municipality Authority. They look at their jobs as strengthening their communities and protecting the environment, not just meeting regulatory standards.”

Lead is not the only water quality concern. Daniel Van Abs, an associate professor at Rutgers University who focuses on water-resources management, cites the problem of surface waters that contain organic materials such as decaying leaves and animal waste. “When you treat them with chlorine, you get disinfection byproducts, some of which are carcinogens,” says Van Abs. “And while there are standards [for] the level of these byproducts that are acceptable in our water, the question is, are we setting these standards low enough and are we doing enough to remove [the byproducts] from our drinking waters?”

An emerging issue, says Van Abs, relates to the many medical and personal care products used by consumers that go into our wastewater, get partially treated and end up in our rivers. “If someone picks that up downstream at the water supply source, what are the effects on people?” asks Van Abs. “The science is emerging here, and there is uncertainty as to what impact this will have on our health.”

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