What’s in your water?

Part One: Identifying the hazards

By Dorothy Wigmore

Tap water is just fine, usually.

However, it can be polluted by industrial, household, commercial, military, agricultural and pharmaceutical sources. Systems themselves can contain lead (e.g., in old pipes, pre-1986 plumbing solder, chrome-plated faucets). Unfortunately, lead in drinking water is a common problem. A 2016 report, “Lead Found in School Drinking Water Across New Jersey,” listed 137 schools in New Jersey with numbers above the action level. Other contaminants have been found in systems across the state.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s latest drinking water reports fuel the concerns. Aside from lead issues, they found toxic chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (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.

What about the lead?

There is no safe level of lead—for children, or adults. The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s 15 parts per billion (ppb) action level indicates only water pipe corrosion and the need to add chemicals to prevent pipes releasing lead. Its unenforceable “maximum contaminant level” (MCL) goal for lead is 0 ppb.

Lead is a neurotoxin, even at low levels. It can affect men’s and women’s ability to have healthy children and damages other systems. With their developing brains, children are particularly susceptible to lead. It permanently changes their behavior, growth, learning and intelligence. It also causes reduced birth weight.

School drinking water is especially an issue because the buildings aren’t used every day. That provides time for lead to leach into sitting water. Older schools’ plumbing often have lead service and interior pipes and/or plumbing fittings and fixtures that contain lead or lead-based solder.

In 2016, New Jersey advocacy groups pointed out that 11 cities and two counties had a higher proportion of young children with dangerous lead levels than Flint, Michigan. A report showed high lead levels in 30 Newark public schools.

School districts were directed to properly collect and analyze samples in all water outlets within the year. After that, they must test for lead in drinking water every six years. They also must give the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) an annual “statement of assurance” that they did the tests, sent out notifications, and staff and students had alternative sources when needed.

Schools and daycare centers do not have to fix the problem. They just have to stop the water from being used, provide alternate sources and send out notifications. It’s worth noting, some schools in the city of Camden have been on bottled water for 17 years.

Most districts did test their drinking water. Some did not follow all the reporting rules and the tests were not uniform across districts. Some responses to the presence of lead were inadequate. The school district with the highest concentration of lead in a 2019 analysis, titled “Compliance with Mandated Testing for Lead in Drinking Water in School Districts in New Jersey,” told parents to talk to their health care providers if they were worried.

In November 2018, voters approved the state borrowing $100 million to fix lead hazards in public schools. This past October, Gov. Phil Murphy proposed a $500 million bond to help replace lead service lines by 2029 and remove lead-based paint in homes across New Jersey.

The NJDOE also will develop new regulations to accelerate its current lead-testing protocol. School water tests now must be done every three years, there will be more enforcement to hold schools accountable and a central database of test results is supposed to improve reporting. Fixes still are not mandatory.

What about these PFAS chemicals?

PFAS chemicals are another concern. The thousands of PFAS are very mobile carbon-fluorine combinations. Those bonds—incredibly difficult to break down—are behind their name of “forever chemicals.” Found in grease or oil and water-resistant products (e.g., nonstick pots and pans, raingear, fire-fighting foam, take-out food container linings), we encounter dozens of them daily in drinking water, food, air, carpets, furniture, personal care products and clothing.

Academic articles link the chemicals to at least 800 health effects. They include cancers, hormone disruption, kidney and liver damage, developmental and reproductive harm, increased weight and cholesterol levels and immune system changes in children. They may also have additive or synergistic (multiplier) effects.

In 2014, a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) study using data from 2009 and 2010 found that two-thirds of samples from 31 municipal water systems contained the toxic chemicals. With better reporting, in 2019 the EWG report named more than 500 sites, adding New Jersey’s highest levels were at former and current military bases, thanks to fire-fighting foam.

New Jersey is among the first states to regulate any PFAS compounds. In September 2018, it adopted a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 13 parts per trillion for PFNA in drinking water, the strictest such standard in the nation, although some advocates are concerned this isn’t protective enough. In March, NJDEP set interim specific groundwater quality standards for PFOA and PFOS at 10 parts per trillion. PFNA, PFOA and PFOS are specific PFAS chemicals.

The NJDEP also is holding polluters accountable. A first of its kind in the nation, their directive orders five chemical companies to conduct state-wide assessment of PFAS damages and to establish a fund to remediate them.

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 association to do?

1.  Use your health and safety committee to check on what’s happened in your school, and to demand action to deal with hazards that are found.

2.  Work with the district to find out about possible contaminants in school drinking water, e.g., ask for the water utility’s required annual Consumer Confidence Report.

3.  Make all results available to parents and the public, including sample sources and methods

4.  Work with Healthy Schools Now and other allies (e.g., NJ Work Environment Council can provide training about PFAS).

5.  Check out Part II, about the “fixes,” next month.


New Jersey Future

Where are the lead service lines in New Jersey?” 2019

“Lead Found in School Drinking Water Across New Jersey,” 2016: bit.ly/njfschoollead

Lead in School Drinking Water in New Jersey: A Preliminary Analysis of Reported Test Results,” 2017

Environment America

Get the lead out: Ensuring Safe Drinking Water for Our Children at School,” March 2019

Environmental Working Group

EWG’s Tap Water Database 2019 Update: ewg.org/tapwater