Newark, New Jersey, began handing out bottled water to residents Monday after officials discovered filters installed to reduce lead contamination in the city’s tap water were not functioning as expected.
The city has been struggling to curb elevated levels of lead in its water supply for nearly three years, handing out over 38,000 lead-safe water filters to residents since 2018 and installing a new corrosion control treatment system in May.
But a recent round of tests showed a small sample of the filters may not be removing lead as effectively as predicted. Lead levels in drinking water sampled exceeded 15 parts per billion, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold for taking action.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (D) and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), in a joint statement issued Sunday, said the city is expanding testing of filtered drinking water and is working with the filters’ manufacturer to “determine the scope of the situation.”
“Access to safe drinking water is critically important to our administrations and we take health risks associated with lead in drinking water very seriously,” they said in their statement.
The city’s decision to offer bottled water comes two days after the EPA wrote a letter calling for Newark residents to be provided with bottled water as soon as possible.
EPA Regional Administrator Peter Lopez wrote that the city of Newark should “advise residents with known or suspected lead service lines that until further notice they should not rely on the efficacy of the filtration devices that the city previously provided.”
In their statement, Baraka and Murphy said Newark will require assistance from the federal government in its efforts to provide bottled water to affected residents. They also warned that making bottled water available could negatively impact Newark’s new corrosion control system.
“The City strongly encourages residents to run their water ― which includes showering, flushing toilets and washing dishes ― in order to help coat the pipes and allow the new corrosion control treatment to continue optimizing,” Newark said in a statement.
Lead contamination has proved to be a nationwide issue in recent years, most famously in Flint, Michigan, where the water crisis resulted in long-term effects on children’s health and was connected to multiple deaths. Newark, along with Detroit and Baltimore, has some of the highest levels of lead contamination in the country.
The Newark Education Workers Caucus and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued Newark and the state of New Jersey last year for failing to follow federal rules designed to protect the public from dangerous lead exposure.
The NRDC noted in a press release announcing its lawsuit that access to safe drinking water is particularly important in low-income communities of color like Newark, where residents “often face multiple sources of exposure and stressors on their health from environmental burdens.”
The city “has gradually gone from absolutely denying there are any lead problems to now admitting they have an issue,” Erik Olson, a drinking water expert with the NRDC, told CNN on Monday.