Don't drink the water: Can New Jersey get the lead out?

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By Glenn Townes

Whether you live or work in Newark, Trenton or Paterson, the mundane task of drinking a glass of water can have deadly short-term and long-term consequences, according to various released studies—including an international environmental advocacy group.  

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)--a New York based think tank and environmental advocacy ranked New Jersey as the 4th worst state in the country for violating safe drinking water guidelines in 2017. At the time, state officials largely dismissed the findings and obliquely acknowledged minor lapses by state agencies in adhering to water monitoring deadlines. Officials said the violations were minimal and not specific enough to warrant health violations related to unsafe drinking water. Fast forward  to 2020-- the toxic water crisis in the city of Newark last year; frequent boil water orders in towns and municipalities across the state; and a rapidly deteriorating infrastructure—replete with thousands of lead-based pipes in Newark, Trenton, Camden and Paterson—the Garden State's ranking as one of the worst states' in the country to drink a glass of clean and contaminant free water remains onerous.

With the toxic water scandal last summer in Newark fresh in the minds of thousands of Newarkers and the seemingly on-going saga of the Flint, MI water crisis, in which thousands of residents of the mostly impoverished city of 100,000, unknowingly imbibed lead based and toxic water for several years, the mantra of don't drink the water continues to resonant with thousands of New Jerseyans. “Many of the things that facilitated the water crisis in Flint, may be happening here,” said Tiffany Heigler, president and chief scientist at Sure-BioChem Laboratories (SBL) in Camden. The company is the only African American-owned biochemical company in South Jersey that specializes in microbioloogy and chemistry analysis. Heigler, who owns the business with her husband, said one of the things to come out of the water crisis in Flint and Newark, is the need for accurate and consistent testing of the nation's water quality system.  “The state has one of the most extensive water testing guidelines in the country,” Heigler said. She added that it would take prolonged exposure to a particular contaminant like lead-based water over a period of time before it became a public health concern or crisis.

Lead is a heavy metal and chemical element that is prevalent in pipes and paints in millions of older homes across the country. For example, in New Jersey prior to 1978,  thousands of homes were painted with lead-based paints. Lead pipes were often included in the infrastructure of mostly low income neighborhoods—as a cost cutting measure by the contractors.   A study last year by the government showed that children in Essex County—including Newark,  had elevated blood lead levels--quadruple the lead levels of children in Flint during the height of the water crisis. Children with abnormal lead levels are prone to the risk of decreased cognitive functions, damaged brain cells, mental health challenges and learning disabilities. 

Lastly, at a community symposium in November entitled, “Lead Policy and the Law” at Seton Hall University Law School in Newark, officials contend the issue of lead contamination is a statewide and nationwide crisis that can be corrected with immediate changes and adjustments to infrastructure. A report from the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative NJ Lead Poisoning Prevention Action Plan released a statement that read in part, “Lead is part of a cycle that interferes with children's ability to achieve their full potential. The behavior issues that result from lead poisoning diminish academic success and lead to discipline issues that help feed the school to prison pipeline.”

NJ URBAN NEWS Senior Business Writer Glenn Townes traveled to Flint, MI to interview city officials and residents about the water crisis under an international fellowship program awarded by the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

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