The Trouble With America’s Water

Lead-tainted drinking water is not only a problem in Flint and Newark.

Water pours from a faucet.
Eric Thayer / Reuters

The city of Newark, New Jersey, is racing to replace all of its lead pipes after a public outcry over the high levels of lead in its water. After exceeding a federal lead limit three times in a row, the city began to provide water filters to certain residents in 2018. But some of the filters were found to be ineffective, and as of the end of last month, thousands of the city’s residents were still advised to drink bottled water.

The situation is said to have “echoes” of the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, a few years ago. As in Flint, a change in the chemical composition of Newark’s water allowed the lead contamination to occur. And like Flint, Newark is predominantly populated by people of color.

Officials in Newark initially denied there was a lead problem in the water, according to reports from The New York Times, even after high lead levels were found in half the city’s schools. A sample of Newark children under the age of 6 tested in 2016 found that about a quarter had measurable levels of lead in their blood. The following year, more than 22 percent of drinking-water samples tested in the city were found to have levels of lead exceeding the federal standard.

Newark’s mayor, Ras Baraka, defends the city’s response. “We gave out filters as soon as we got the report,” he told me. “We never denied there was lead in the water.” He said the children’s blood-lead levels were elevated due to lead paint, not lead in water. The city is now replacing all of its lead service lines, including in parts of the city that weren’t affected by the lead problem.

Newark is far from the only city that has struggled to keep its drinking water free from lead. Drinking water in the United States is mostly safe, but between 2015 and 2018, about 5.5 million Americans in communities around the nation got their water from systems that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s lead action level of 15 parts per billion, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. The widespread presence of lead in water in certain areas points to what advocates call a serious failure to upgrade water infrastructure in recent decades.

“The U.S. has not been investing in its drinking-water infrastructure for generations,” says Erik Olson, the senior director for health programs at NRDC, which filed a lawsuit against Newark last year. “A lot of our pipes are 50 or 100 years old or more, and many are lead. And water-treatment plants are still using World War I–era technology for treatment.”

Few substances threaten public health quite like lead. In adults, lead can cause heart and kidney disease; in children, it can permanently lower IQ and lead to behavioral problems. Lead’s damage to the body is difficult to reverse and can last a lifetime. When researchers examined fertility before and after Flint’s lead crisis, they found what they called a “horrifyingly large” increase in fetal deaths and miscarriages. Some experts say the federal action level for lead, the point at which the local water department must take measures to fix the problem, is still too high. For one thing, the 15-parts-per-billion threshold is based on the metabolism of an adult, says Ruth Ann Norton, a lead expert and president of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative in Baltimore.

The problem starts with the roughly 50,000 fragmented community public-water systems in the U.S., Olson says, many of which don’t have the resources or expertise to comply with public-health standards. Perhaps most startlingly, the NRDC found that 97 percent of Puerto Rico is served by systems that violate the federal Lead and Copper Rule, mostly by failing to monitor and report on their water quality. Other than Newark, other cities with large populations that have had “action-level exceedances”—lead amounts beyond the EPA’s action level—include Portland, Oregon; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Providence, Rhode Island; Passaic, New Jersey; and the Tualatin Valley in Oregon. Some areas that don’t have major lead problems still struggle with water contaminants like arsenic and bacteria, Olson says.

Lead’s toxicity has been known for centuries, but lead remained a popular choice for water service lines installed up to the 1980s. It’s more flexible and durable than iron. About 6 million lead service lines are still in use today, connecting households to water mains. Prior to 1986, copper pipes inside a person’s home could also be joined with lead solder.

As the health risks of lead became clearer, cities that used lead service lines began to practice what’s called “corrosion control,” adding chemicals to the water to create and maintain an internal coating inside the pipes. The protective layer is meant to reduce the amount of lead that can flake off into the water. It’s a delicate balance, though, with many points of failure.

Newark had been using sodium silicate to prevent corrosion. But when the city increased its water’s acidity in 2015, the sodium silicate seemed to stop working. In cities with lots of lead service lines, keeping the water from corroding the pipes can require an elite chemist’s skill. Kareem Adeem, the acting director of the Newark water department, does not have a college degree, the Times reported. (Baraka told me Adeem is not involved in managing the chemicals in the water—engineers under his purview do that. He said Adeem is “completely qualified to manage and run that water department.”)

“The people who are put in charge of the chemistry for water systems, there has to be better oversight of who they are and what they’re going to do,” says Norton, the Baltimore lead expert.

According to Olson, replacing all the lead service lines in the U.S. could cost $30 billion. It’s a hefty-seeming sum, “but that’s the kind of investment that society made when these water systems were being built 100-plus years ago,” he says. “We have been living off of the investments of our great-grandparents for decades.”

Some cities have shown that such an investment is possible. Lansing, Michigan, and Madison, Wisconsin, have removed and replaced all of their lead service lines since 2001. And Americans have already indicated that they are willing to pay for even safer water: We currently spend $18.5 billion on bottled water every year.