What’s in your water? Part 2: Getting things fixed, reducing toxins

By Dorothy Wigmore

The stories about New Jersey’s widespread problems with toxins in drinking water can be scary. Some contaminants—such as well-known lead and the newer poly- and perfluoroalkyl (PFAS) “forever” chemicals—harm children more than adults, making school water a concern. (See Part 1)

The Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s latest drinking water reports fuel the concerns. Aside from lead issues, the group found toxic chemicals known as PFAS are more common in New Jersey than most other states. EWG also found more than 100 other contaminants in the state’s drinking water. Ten of those contaminants are over the health-based limits, are known carcinogens, and can affect pregnancies.

Water companies do not have to test for more than 500 contaminants known to be in New Jersey’s water.

Where can we get information about drinking water quality?

Drinking water quality information is based on what’s measured on the state list of regulated chemicals, a combination of federal and state standards. (See Resources on Page 51.)

State water supply utilities must test water leaving their treatment plants for lead and other substances. They also must test their own lines containing lead. Their annual required Consumer Confidence Reports—mailed to customers—are supposed to provide information about test results.

School districts must deal with their own lead-containing lines. In 2016, New Jersey finally adopted regulations requiring districts test for lead in school drinking water. They had to test their own water within the year and every six years afterwards. They also must:

  • Make results available at each school and on district websites, where they must stay until the next set is available.
  • Only tell parents and the NJDOE when levels exceed the federal EPA’s “action level”—15 parts per billion (ppb).
  • Report what was done to immediately stop use of water outlets above the action level and how staff and students will have access to water.
  • Provide an annual “statement of assurance” to the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE).

Recent changes include testing every three years, and a central test result database at a new NJDOE site:nj.gov/education/lead/lead-report.html.

Groups such as the EWG and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) analyze test results. (See Resources below.)

Which numbers are best?

Many scientists have criticized the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for inadequate drinking water standards. Its numbers are out of date for some substances, don’t cover many others, and/or have recommended but unenforceable “maximum contaminant levels” (MCLs).

Some states have leapt into the breach. For example, the New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute (DWQI) recommends health-based levels for some water contaminants.

There is no safe level for lead, which is well- known for its many harmful effects. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for a national commitment to eliminate all lead sources that may affect children. It urged state and local governments to ensure that school water fountains not exceed 1 ppb of lead.

PFAS compound standards are improving as their hazards are studied. An early regulator for three PFAS compounds, New Jersey set a MCL of 13 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFNA in drinking water and interim specific groundwater quality standards for PFOA and PFOS at 10 ppt.

However, “New Jersey can do better,” says the NRDC. “Its proposed MCLs fail to fully protect our health and the environment from PFAS contamination. The agency must step up to fix these problems by adopting a combined MCL of 2 ppt for PFOA and PFOS that protects the most vulnerable among us.”

Standards depend on laboratory test methods. This year, the latest EPA procedure led Michigan, California, New Hampshire and New York to standards for older PFAS chemicals, some much better than New Jersey’s.

To complicate matters, newer “short-chain” PFAS chemicals likely cause the same health problems as older ones. New Jersey officials accused the EPA of ignoring studies when it approved replacements such as GenX.

What is to be done?

Systemic solutions—getting rid of contaminants—are the only effective answer. Meanwhile, in general, schools should avoid bottled water (see below) and set up temporary drinking water stations, when necessary.

The new rules do not require districts to fix lead problems. However, the state plans to replace all lead service lines within 10 years at an estimated total cost of $2.3 billion.

Meanwhile, districts should:

  • Test water at least annually, remembering it’s just a “snapshot in time.”
  • Send the results to the NJDOE and post them, with explanations about which are drinking water and which other sources, in an easily found website.
  • Look at pipes, parts, faucets, fountains and service lines for possible sources, replacing any contributing lead to drinking water with nontoxic options.
  • Filter and/or flush where necessary, especially when stagnation is likely.
  • Keep tabs on the EPA’s proposed changes to the Lead and Copper Rule, issued in October, some of which applies to schools.

Flushing systems helps but does not remove the lead source. For example, a Chicago Public Schools engineer invented an automatic flushing device (“Noah”) to avoid water stagnating in pipes and absorbing lead.

“Parents and school staff should use the new New Jersey online database, to find out if lead is in their school’s drinking water,” says Heather Sorge, campaign organizer for Healthy Schools Now. “Then they can push for its removal to protect staff and students.”

PFAS chemicals are harder to deal with. Water utilities can remove the older ones using granular activated carbon (GAC) or reverse osmosis. But they will need other methods for newer PFASs.

To avoid contributing to PFAS contamination, districts can change procurement policies to require full chemical transparency for all products they order (e.g., carpets). They can require non-PFAS food containers (Denmark plans to ban them in July 2020), and avoid chemicals altogether by returning to reusable food containers.

Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, work organization/stress and education. A Canadian, she has also worked in the U.S. and Mozambique, and been involved in efforts to prevent and deal with job-related hazards for many years.

What’s an NJEA local to do?

1. Work with the district to:

  • Inventory contaminants in school drinking water, lead sources, and PFAS chemicals in materials present/used in the school.
  • Review water utility Consumer Confidence Reports and procurement policies.
  • Develop right-to-know transparency about chemicals in any products or materials coming into the school.
  • Deal with hazards in holistic ways that prevent harm (e.g., reusable dishes instead of take-out containers with PFAS linings).

2. Set an example by banning bottled water at meetings and other events.

3. Keep tabs on PFAS chemicals, checking on what other states are doing (see Resources below).

4. Support community efforts to clean up and eliminate drinking water contaminants.

5. Work with the Healthy Schools Now Coalition and other allies. (Visit njwec.org)

Bottled water is not the answer

  • It’s expensive and creates plastic pollution.
  • In 2018, nearly 64% of “bottled” water in the U.S. was actually tap water.
  • Documented bottled water industry campaigns have demonized tap water.
  • New Jersey regulators found bottled water with antimony at five times the federal limit, arsenic at twice the limit, and radium; the results have not been widely publicized, and the limits used are out of date.
  • Some companies don’t test bottled water for PFAS or other chemicals, nor must they report the results.
  • It doesn’t pressure utilities, governments, or districts to fix water infrastructure (cost estimated at $24 billion, compared to $31 billion spent on bottled water in 2018).


Should we break our bottled water habit?” Consumer Reports

Get the Lead Out: Back to School Toolkit,” Environment America and U.S. PIRG

National Resource Defense Council (NRDC)(has state information)

New Jersey’s water systems’ regulated substances