Last week, WURD 900am radio host, Brother Shomari, was guest hosting for Charles Ellison and reached out to me to join his show. I was asked to submit topics to discuss from my writings and he decided which would be used.

There’s nothing going on in Chester that a mostly Philadelphia listening audience would be interested in so I didn’t bother sharing any of those topics. Brother Shomari sorted what I did send and we ended up discussing everything from Jay-Z and the NFL to trends showing how many counties across America are becoming majority non-white.

The first topic Brother Shomari wanted to discuss was the Newark, NJ lead crisis with their drinking water. The night before there were protests at the MTV Video Music Awards held in Newark which I didn’t learn about until later, so he thought the audience could use a little education on the matter.

There’s never enough time in these formats to cover all the bases before needing to move on to the next topic, so for those of you who may have heard the segment, I’d like to fill in some blanks with this summary timeline of the events that’s led to the Newark, NJ lead crisis.

How it started

The Flint water crisis started in 2014. When people learned water companies were not required to test for lead in schools, a lot of schools around the country did their own testing to find out if they had lead or not. In 2016, thirty Newark schools shut down their water supply after finding elevated levels of lead believed to be from old internal piping and its fixtures, faucets, and solder.

(Don’t be angry with the government for not testing lead in schools because schools and commercial buildings won’t have lead service lines – the pipe that connects the water main to your building – because of their size. Lead is only used in the small diameter pipes (1/2” or smaller) that come to you home and is too soft a metal for use in bigger buildings).

How it grew

Prior to 2017, the government’s Lead and Copper rule required water companies go around town and test 50 homes for lead every 3-years. In Newark they found over 10% of the homes had elevated lead. As a result, they had to put out an alert and step up the testing to include 100 homes every 6-months. Increased testing resulted in increased discovery of elevated lead levels in homes.

Newark’s response

There’s some controversy over how the politicians handled the news that the city may be facing a lead crisis, but they did start making water filters available for free to anyone who wanted them. Recently, testers are finding the filters aren’t removing lead like they should and the city is now giving out bottled water.

How did the lead get in the water?

The water coming into the water treatment plant is virtually lead free. But, of the 36,000 homes and businesses connected to water mains running through the middle of the street, 18,000 of those connections are service pipes made of lead.

It’s the responsibility of the water company to add some chemicals to the water to keep the service lines from leaching lead into the water coming into the homes and Newark was doing a good job of that until in 2012 they were asked to solve another issue with their water to help prevent cancer. They obeyed with the new edict and lowered the pH of the water resulting in a slightly more acidic water which unknowingly rendered the corrosion additive less effective and it caused the removal of the protective barrier keeping lead from leaching into the water.

Studies can’t pinpoint how long this has been occurring other than to report elevated lead started showing up around sometime before 2017. Duh!

What now for Newark?

The only solution is to remove all lead piping underground. This is no easy task. It costs a lot of money and will take a long time. Unlike Flint, MI which can’t find the money to get this done, Newark was successful in getting a loan from their county for $120 million to be used to replace all the piping within the next 3-years.

There’s still a lot of anger and confusion among residents and city government is in major damage control mode. We certainly haven’t heard the last of the water crisis coming out of Newark and are sure to learn of other cities who are trying to keep their lead issues under wraps.

How dangerous is lead?

There is no safe level of consumption at all. It’s especially dangerous if consumed by children and pregnant women. It deteriorates cognition and development in children. As many of you saw in CNN’s United Shades of American episode with W. Kamau Bell that featured Philadelphia and Chester as major air polluters, there were two children featured who were exposed to lead from paint and dust and both have suffered greatly. That was the saddest part of the episode to me.

What can you do?

If you live in an old home and don’t know if you have a lead service line, that would be a good place to start. Since testing is only required on 50 homes every 3-years, the chances they’ll come to your home is like hitting the lottery. And remember, they won’t notify you unless they find you’re over the federal limit of 15 parts-per-billion. If you have 14 parts-per-billion of lead coming out your kitchen faucet, you’re okay according to the government.

For about $150-200 you can have your tap water tested for almost everything from a professional lab.

You can refuse to drink tap water, get a filter, or drink bottled water. But remember, most bottled water comes from tap water that goes through more filtering…sometimes.

Clean water is fast becoming a scarcity.