Most Americans take for granted that they can drink water safely straight from the tap, whether in our homes, at school or in public facilities. Unfortunately, as the public health crisis in Flint, Michigan demonstrates this is not always the case. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that any detectable amount of lead in water can be harmful to human health, and that young children, infants and fetuses are particularly vulnerable.
As in other states, many of New Jersey’s older schools, homes and businesses have a serious plumbing problem in which service lines, interior pipes and plumbing fixtures leach lead into the water. (Most New Jersey community drinking water systems have eliminated lead-lined delivery pipes and they treat drinking water with anti-corrosive agents that reduce leaching.) The vast majority of the problematic water infrastructure belongs to the owners of older homes, apartment buildings, schools, and other buildings that were built before 1987, when lead was outlawed in pipes and fixtures. When this is the case, the property owner bears responsibility for addressing the lead in their buildings’ drinking water.
Although statewide, the problem is most severe in older communities – often the same communities where school districts and other property owners may lack the financial and staff resources to resolve it. (Consider the Camden City School District, which has been providing bottled water for years.) This mismatch between a serious public health threat and the necessary resources raises the question — what responsibility does the state of New Jersey and its citizenry have to support short-term measures and longer-term drinking water infrastructure upgrades in order to ensure all children, in all communities, can drink safely? Governor Christie has taken a first step in requiring school districts to test their drinking water and post results.
Recognizing that modern, robust water infrastructure is crucial for the health of our children, our communities and ultimately our economy, leaders from many sectors have joined forces to form Jersey Water Works. The Jersey Water Works collaborative effort is committed to helping to educate on lead to keep our children safe. A growing list of resources about lead in drinking water is now available on the Jersey Water Works website. Jersey Water Works will also share periodic updates on lead initiatives through its growing network.
In the immediate term, anyone who is concerned about whether the water in his or her home is safe should review the federal and state agency websites listed on the resource page, and/or contact his or her drinking water provider or municipal health officer. They can provide guidance on testing drinking water, and also employing short-term strategies to minimize lead, such as running water before use and using filters.
While lead is New Jersey’s and the nation’s most visible water infrastructure crisis, it is hardly the only one. New Jersey’s leaky water pipes lose an average of between 20 and 22 percent of treated drinking water before it even gets to the tap. Water and sewer mains rupture, causing business shutdowns and localized flooding and necessitating costly emergency repairs. Twenty-one cities have combined sewer systems that discharge raw sewage into rivers and bays and can cause sewage back-ups into homes and basements. And inadequate stormwater systems mean that even regular rainstorms can cause chronic flooding.
The price tag to fix all of this? We don’t really know, but EPA estimates put it at around $40 billion over the next 20 years – a daunting challenge for elected leaders facing a myriad of fiscal demands and increasingly constrained resources with which to meet them.
But fix it we must. Access to safe drinking water is considered an essential human right. Please join us to ensure clean, healthy water, smart infrastructure and strong communities.