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Lead in NJ's drinking water: Utilities, NJDEP address a problem exacerbated by an aging infrastructure

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Results of recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) testing revealed levels of lead above the federal limit in the drinking water supplied by 60 water treatment utilities across New Jersey.

Several major New Jersey water utility companies, including Trenton Water Works, Newark Water Department and the Passaic Valley Water Commission, had tap water samples that exceeded what is known as the “lead action level” according to the LCR test results. The “lead action level” refers to the maximum test results allowable before the water utility is required to take action to address the issue.

Those three utility companies, and many others on the list, are in full compliance with NJDEP lead remediation procedures, confirmed NJDEP Press Director Robert Geist.

The Lead and Copper Rule, implemented by the EPA in 1991 and updated several times in the past 25 years, calls for regular random testing of all city and municipal water systems throughout the country. Regulations require systems to monitor drinking water at customer taps. 

When the LCR tests are conducted, any result that exceeds federal regulations triggers New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection involvement.

At present, the NJDEP is monitoring the 60 utility authorities in question to assure they are complying with lead remediation guidelines including public notification and various other procedures.

Trenton Water Works, which serves 64,000 customers (not residents) in Trenton, Hamilton Township and parts of Lawrence Township, is fully complying with all NJDEP requests, said Merkle Cherry, director of the Trenton Water Works Department of Public Works.

The utility conducted its LCR test in early 2017 with mixed results. Of the randomly selected 119 homes tested, 14 homes tested positive for both lead levels in the drinking water. This is a representative sample of all Trenton Water Works customers.

The 2017 LCR results shine a light on a continuing challenge for New Jersey, namely, aging infrastructure.

The main water pipes which carry water from treatment plants to customers are made of cast iron and connected by heavy-duty iron screws. They do not contain lead nor lead solder that can leach into the water, said Lawrence Hajna, NJDEP press officer.

That’s a good thing, as is the fact that water is presumably lead-free when it exits a water treatment plant.

While the government is monitoring the workings of water authorities, said Hajna, “the issue isn’t with our water sources; the lead is in the pipes in some homes.”

Once the water leaves the main line and enters a customer’s service line, that’s where the problem can take hold. These service lines, the pipes that connect a house or office to the main water line in the street, are the pipes that are tested during LCR tests. Throughout New Jersey, these service lines are either made of lead or soldered with lead. Home fixtures also contain lead, the EPA reports.

“If lead concentrations exceed an action level of 15 (parts per billion) ppb or copper concentrations exceed an action level of 1.3 ppm in more than 10 percent of customer taps sampled, the system must undertake a number of additional actions to control corrosion,” according to EPA guidelines.

The numbers, at “parts per billion,” may seem inconsequential but, according to Geist, the results of LCR testing are significant. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), “there is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.”

Director Cherry said his department is taking the LCR test results seriously. Trenton Water Works sent out an educational notice to all customers in mid-August alerting them to the results of the lead testing. The three-page notification spelled out sources of lead and various safety and health concerns associated with drinking water containing lead. Further, the letter included advice about water testing and home mitigation techniques to reduce and even eliminate any risks.

Tips on reducing lead exposure from drinking water

The ingestion of lead can lead to serious health risks, including anemia, kidney and brain damage. Exposure to very high lead levels can lead to death.

All lead exposure is particularly risky for pregnant women and young children. And, regardless of what may seem like minute levels of lead reported in routine water testing, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), “there is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.”Further, “lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems,” the WHO reports.

Once lead enters the body, it doesn’t get excreted. It is stored and accumulates in human bones and teeth over time. Too much exposure can result in lead poisoning; this can happen when a person absorbs too much lead by swallowing or breathing something with lead in it.

According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), “up to 20 percent of a person’s potential exposure to lead may come from drinking water. When water stands in leads pipes or plumbing systems containing lead for several hours or more, the lead may dissolve in your drinking water.”

However, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports “exposure to lead-contaminated water alone would not be likely to elevate blood lead levels in most adults, even exposure to water with a lead content close to the EPA action level for lead of 15 parts per billion (ppb).”

In fact, risk varies based on the person consuming the water and the amount of water they drink. “For example, infants who drink formula prepared with lead-contaminated water may be at a higher risk because of the large volume of water they consume relative to their body size,” according to the CDC.

For those who are concerned, it is better to be safe than sorry, said Lawrence Hajna, NJDEP press officer.

Recent results of federal water testing guidelines, the Lead and Copper Rule, revealed customers of 60 water utility systems throughout the state may have been exposed to unacceptable levels of lead in their drinking water. The vast majority of these utilities are complying with NJDEP guidelines for remediation.

The good news is that lead poisoning is preventable. Hajna suggested that anyone concerned about the possibility of lead in their drinking water should have their home plumbing systems tested. They can contact their local utility or a New Jersey-certified water testing lab.

If a water test reveals the presence of lead, there are several steps that can be taken to reduce exposure.

Flush it out. The longer water remains in lead-contaminated pipes, the more likely the lead will leach into the water supply. Always allow water to run from the cold water faucet for about 15 to 30 seconds before drinking it or cooking with it.

Use alternative sources of water. Buy bottled water or use a simple NSF International-approved water filter to bypass the issue of lead in drinking water. Contact NSF at 800-NSF-8010 or visit www.nsf.org for information regarding water filter standards.

Install a home water filtration system. This can be an expensive, but effective, solution if a home water supply is heavily lead-contaminated. The NJDEP recommends selecting a company that has been certified to meet federal standards.

Smart water tips

Use cold water for cooking as lead dissolves more quickly in hot water. If hot water is needed, use water from the cold tap and heat it up.

When it comes to making baby food, do not use hot tap water to prepare formula or cereals. Use filtered or bottled water.

Consider replacing the lead solder used in the home plumbing system.

Finally, for those who want to be personally tested for lead, general practitioners, including pediatricians, can perform blood tests and provide advice on how to manage positive test results.

“These steps may include adjusting water pH or introducing additives that coat the interior of piping to prevent leaching of lead,” said Hajna. “In some cases, water systems may need to implement a program to replace service lines made of lead.”

Trenton Water Works is conducting additional testing and early results show a reduction in the number of samples that exceeded the lead action level. Testing will continue through the end of 2017.

Trenton Water Works has agreed to replace certain service pipes by June 2018. The utility has applied to the DEP for funding through the NJ Environmental Infrastructure Trust, a state revolving loan fund to replace service lines. 

Director Cherry confirmed Trenton is aggressively replacing the water service lines. “We’ve spent probably in the neighborhood of $12 million in replacing services….so that the lead is no longer an issue. We continue to do that and the program is ongoing. It’s a part of our effort to improve the entire water delivery system.”

New Jersey’s guidelines for testing frequency are stricter than those specified by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, said Hajna. The Act requires public community and nontransient, non-community water systems to conduct lead testing every six months, annually or triennially, depending on past compliance history.

As of January 1, 2017, New Jersey requires all large water systems (those serving more than 50,000 customers) to conduct Lead and Copper Rule testing to monitor for lead every six months — regardless of past compliance history.

This year’s LCR tests revealed that 60 water utility systems exceeded federal minimum lead guidelines. Geist explained 18 of the 60 utility systems are public community water systems (those systems that serve 15 or more service connections or regularly serve 25 or more people). The other 42 systems are public non-community water systems (systems that do not meet the definition of a public community water system).

“These could include commercial establishments, schools, hospitals, etc.,” he said.

Since replacing all plumbing across the state isn’t practical and would be cost-prohibitive, Hajna said, “water systems monitor routinely for lead, actually getting samples from a representative cross-section of their service system.

“The sampling program for each water system is weighted as much as possible to make sure that areas of a community with known housing stock with lead pipes are monitored most aggressively.”

Water samples are taken after water has been sitting in pipes for at least six hours. This is known as a “first-flush” sample. If 10 percent or more of the samples exceed the federal lead action level, the system is considered in violation of the Lead and Copper Rule.

According to NJDEP records, Trenton exceeded the lead action level in first half of 1992. Public Education was required at that time. Geist confirmed that Trenton did not exceed the lead action level between the second half of 1992 and 2016, as per Lead and Copper Rule guidelines.

Cause for concern, not panic

New Jersey isn’t Flint, Michigan. The lead challenges faced by citizens of the Garden State are worthy of attention, but there’s no cause for panic, the experts said.

While lead is a common element found in the environment, man-made lead exposure — usually through lead-based paint, lead-contaminated dust or soil and plumbing materials including pipes and solder —remains a challenge for pregnant women, young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

For families using water to prepare baby formula, the concern should be paramount, Hajna said. Although, he pointed out, even if there is lead in your home’s water supply, there is something you can do about it. (See sidebar for tips on reducing exposure to lead in drinking water.)

Lead and many other contaminants including copper and natural radioactive particles are part of New Jersey’s natural geology. New Jersey is an agricultural state and land here has fallen victim to countless years of pesticides. In addition, there have been years of un-monitored dumping in the state.

For these reasons, utility authorities dig extremely deep wells from which they source public drinking water. The deeper the wells, the cleaner the water. Also, some cities, including Trenton, source water supplies from fresh groundwater, including the Delaware River which is lead free.

Drinking water is not the only way people come in contact with lead. Various types of everyday products including food, cosmetics, some pottery and pewter and many other items may contain lead. Also, many people face lead exposure in the workplace. All of these things add to the amount of lead a person could be exposed to in totality.

However, for the purposes of the Lead and Copper Rule, the issue at hand is potable drinking water, said Hajna. “The problem is close to home for many New Jersey residents.”

If you live in a New Jersey home built before 1986, there is a possibility your indoor plumbing includes lead pipes or simply lead solder. More recently, contractors use copper pipes in New Jersey construction, but even new pipes may very well be soldered with lead.

Also, new brass faucets, fittings and valves may leach lead into the drinking water supply — even if they are labeled “lead-free.”

“Current laws permit end-use fixtures, such as faucets, to contain up to 0.25 percent of lead and still be labeled lead-free,” according to the NJDEP. “However, prior to January 4, 2014, ‘lead-free’ allowed up to 8 percent lead content of the wetted surfaces of plumbing products.”

When asked whether New Jersey residents should you be concerned that their drinking water contains led, Hajna answered with a solid “maybe.” He said it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“Lead was used in solder to connect sections of pipes for many decades, and was even used in fixtures until the mid-1980s,” Hajna said. “So, throughout New Jersey, most everyone should be aware of the potential for lead to be in their drinking water.

Knowledge is power, he said. “Anyone who is concerned should contact an NJ-certified water testing company. At the DEP, we know we have to do our best to make these risks as minimal as possible for New Jersey citizens. Awareness and education are key.”

It is important to note that even if a municipalities’ utility authority passed the federal LCR tests, there still might be lead in a personal water supply. This is because the tests are conducted randomly on a very small number of locations throughout the community. The test results are designed to approximate overall risk, Geist said.

For those with concerns, Hajna suggested contacting the local water utility or having water privately tested by a New Jersey certified testing lab. Don’t rely on water tests that can be purchased in stores, he cautioned, because the object is to learn accurate information, not to be a potential customer for a water filtration company.

Both Geist and Hajna stressed the NJDEP’s interest in getting the word out about the health-related dangers of lead.

“The DEP works with water systems and their customers to implement plans to ensure that the risks posed by contaminants are reduced to the safety levels set by EPA and DEP scientists,” Geist said. “We also offer resources – in communities and online – to help consumers use best practices to protect themselves.”

For additional information, the NJDEP maintains a website, NJ Drinking Water Watch, that provides years of data on testing results for all contaminants, including lead. There is also information on violations that may have occurred throughout the state and how the situation was resolved. Click here to learn more.

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