Treatment underway in Newark to attack high lead levels in drinking water

NEWARK, NJ — After months of planning, testing and construction, Newark officials announced Tuesday that orthophosphates are now being added to the city’s water system to reduce high levels of lead in drinking water.

“Orthophoshate works by tying up the lead that is in the water and it forms a coating on the pipes,” said Sarah Kutzing, a water consultant hired by the city. “That coating on the pipes essentially acts as a physical barrier to prevent the water from being in contact with the walls of the lead pipe.”

Leading up to today, the city has distributed 36,000 free water filters to residents and it’s implemented a lead service line removal program, just as lead levels reached new highs.

Water samples reported this year show lead levels at around 67 parts per billion, with some homes testing much higher. The federal limit for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion, although no level of lead is considered safe.

The city said it could take months for the orthophosphates to take effect.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” said acting water department director Kareem Adeem. “We are expecting that we may see our fifth exceedence in July.”

Newark water runs to the homes of 280,000 city residents, plus thousands more in neighboring towns - including Belleville, Bloomfield and Nutley.

A federal lawsuit brought by a group of city residents and the National Resource Defense Council is still pending against Newark over the high levels of lead in its water. They’ve sought emergency action to get water filters in every home.

“A city that has close to 300,000 people, why have they only distributed 36,000 water filters?” said Lisa Parker, a Newark resident and plaintiff in the suit.

Tuesday, they questioned if several recent cases of Legionnaires' disease in the city can be linked to the city’s water problems. Legionella is a bacteria that can fester in large water systems, typically in heating and air conditioning systems in large buildings.

“First of all, it lives in hot water,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “It’s breathed through mist. It is not given to people through drinking water.”

“Those are two separate completely different issues,” he said.

The city has not tested for legionella in the drinking water system.

“It is not a federal requirement,” said another water consultant for the city.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe said the department will examine residents’ concerns about legionella.

“We definitely will be looking into the cause,” she said.

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