What Caused the Newark Water Crisis?

Newark is one of the oldest cities in the United States and, like many old cities, its aging water infrastructure is the product of an era during which the dangers of lead poisoning were poorly understood.

Typically, public water systems collect and treat their source water at a central treatment plant before distributing it to customers throughout the municipal area. From the treatment plant, water runs through large pipes known as distribution mains, which connect through "gooseneck" pipes to service lines. Service lines run from the distribution main to individual homes and buildings. After flowing through a distribution main and service line, water moves through the interior plumbing of a home or building before ultimately flowing out the tap.

Service lines, gooseneck pipes, and many other water infrastructure and interior plumbing components were historically made out of lead. Lead service lines and other components are particularly common in cities where many homes and service lines were built before the 1940s. Even in homes built after the 1940s, interior plumbing often contains lead components, typically lead piping or copper piping joined with lead solder. By one estimate, the City of Newark contains as many as 22,000 lead service lines, a number that does not account for additional homes and buildings that are not fed by lead distribution lines, but nonetheless contain lead interior plumbing components.

Water flowing through lead service lines and lead or lead-soldered pipes can react chemically with the interior surfaces of those pipes and cause the metal to break down through a process called corrosion. Differences in water chemistry, especially as measured by pH (the acidity or basicity of the water) and alkalinity (the water's ability to protect itself against changes in pH), along with physical characteristics such as temperature and velocity, can affect the relative corrosivity of the source water.

Thus, even where lead pipes are in place, a water system can limit the rate at which its source water corrodes the pipes through treatment, typically the addition of corrosion-inhibiting chemicals such as orthophosphate or substances like soda ash, lime, or silica to the water. Treatments added to source water react with lead from the service line or pipe, causing protective "scales" (solid layers) to form on the interior surface of the pipe. Once formed, these scales are chemically and physically stable. They inhibit corrosion by preventing the water from coming into contact with the underlying lead surface of the pipe, which remain unstable.

In order for corrosion control treatment to remain effective, it is important for the water system to maintain the physical and chemical stability of its source water, particularly pH and alkalinity. In Newark, lead likely started leaching from distribution lines and pipes after the City started reducing pH levels in 2012. The City began adjusting pH levels to reduce cancer-causing byproducts of disinfectants used to eliminate microbes in the source water. As early as 2012, and by 2016 at the very latest, Newark had reduced the pH of its source water enough to destabilize the protective scale and render its corrosion control treatment ineffective.

Since Newark began to sample its drinking water as mandated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, it has found itself out of compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule during all five monitoring periods. What's more, already high levels of lead in water appeal have increased still further during recent monitoring periods. From January to June 2017, June to December 2017, and January to June 2018, 10% of samples (the "90th percentile") had concentrations of lead at or above 27 ppb, 26.7 ppb, and 17.8 ppb, respectively. From July to December 2018, meanwhile, the 90th percentile increased to 47.9 ppb. From January to June 2019, it went up still further, to a staggering 57 ppb.

More troubling still, even within the very limited sampling protocol, a number of samples tested with lead concentrations at or above 100 ppb, indicating the presence of particulate lead in the water. In other words, lead has likely been released not only in dissolved form, but also as suspended particles capable of lodging on plumbing components and prolonging the slow release of lead over time, even after corrosion control treatment is optimized or the lead service lines replaced.

If you are a resident of Newark and you or your child have been exposed to lead, please give us the opportunity to help. Our dedicated lead poisoning attorneys are available to speak with you and can be reached at 1-800-210-3634 or by completing the form on this page. We are pleased to offer a free case evaluation to all potential plaintiffs and hope you will keep us in mind as you consider pursuing your claim for lead-related injuries.

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