Contaminated water in Newark threatens residents’ health and strains finances

Published by Prism
February 3, 2021


Beads of sweat threaten to roll down 22-year-old Kiyanna Vasquez’s face. A groan escapes her lips as she lifts yet another gallon of water from the supermarket shelf. Three 24-pack cases of bottled water, two 2.5-gallon jugs, three individual gallons, and four packs of sparkling water pile up in her grocery cart. She curses herself for the latter.

“I don’t need this,” she says. She’s shopping for necessities only, and sparkling water doesn’t fit the bill. She removes two packs from her cart.  

As she makes her way to checkout, she grabs a circular on the floor, hoping to find a coupon. She doesn’t. She sighs heavily and pays $30 for the week’s water. At the end of the month, she will have spent $80 on water from the supermarket—and another $40 on her water bill itself. A recent college graduate, Vazquez makes $29,000 a year at her data entry job downtown. Spending $1,000 per year on water represents a major expense.

Vazquez lives in Newark, New Jersey, where stories like hers are not unique. In 2017, this city of almost 300,000 residents was found to have violated the federal limit for lead in drinking water—15 parts per billion (ppb)—for the fifth consecutive monitoring period.  

In October, the city distributed faucet filters to residents, but tests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed that the filters failed to sufficiently reduce lead. In fact, for some, lead reduction is impossible, says Margie Kelly, the communications manager of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

 “Certified water filters for lead reduction have been evaluated in a study using water that contains 150 parts per billion of lead,” more than 10 times the allowable maximum, Kelly explains. “However, some homes in Newark have lead levels that exceed 150 parts per billion.”  

Not only are filters uncertified to protect homes with higher lead levels, but when heavily used, they also run the risk of rapidly becoming ineffective, according to Linda Schweitzer, an environmental chemist at Oakland University—just 40 minutes outside of Flint, Michigan.

“Showering and bathing is also a problem, and this may be the most inconvenient aspect of the problem,” says Schweitzer. “Drinking water filters are not meant to be used for large volume bathing and would thus be only good for a short time. My worry is that if someone uses a Brita-type filter every day for large volumes, the filter would be saturated quickly instead of the two months that would be normal if used only for drinking.”

Ultimately, following warnings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, federal officials instructed the city to distribute bottled water in August 2019. Yet thousands of the bottles were past their expiration dates, which meant an increased risk of the bottles’ plastic releasing chemicals into the water. Moreover, distribution ended the same month, except for pregnant women and children under the age of six.

A resident of the city’s East Ward, Vazquez never qualified to receive bottled water or a filter. The city has refused to aid East Ward residents, who are serviced by the Wanaque pipeline system, claiming that they weren’t impacted by the crisis because homes there had tested just below the federal actionable level. The city has instead focused its efforts on those serviced by the Pequannock pipeline system.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has sued the city over this policy, asking the court to order the city to distribute bottled water to all residents, but the court ruled against the organization. Nonetheless, residents in the East Ward are also at risk, Schweitzer says.

“Lead is a toxin and no exposure is good,” she says.

So residents in the East Ward remain ineligible for free filters or water from the city, which Schweitzer suggests may be related to costs. When paying for pollution removal, “It is not expensive to go from [a lead concentration level of] 50 ppb to 25 ppb, or 25 ppb to 12 ppb, but then it gets exponentially more expensive to get to 6 ppb, 3, 1.5,” she explains.  “The reality [is] that it is cost-prohibitive to get to a 0 concentration.”

That may explain why Newark has focused on homes with higher lead levels. While the city may save itself some money this way, those exposed to lead ultimately pay the price. “People incur health-related problems that are much more expensive than what it would cost to prevent the problem by distributing filters,” said Schweizer.

Now Vazquez, one of thousands affected by the water crisis, struggles to cope financially. The Newark Water Coalition, started by Newark residents Sabre Bee and Anthony Diaz, has stepped up to distribute donated water and filters to those in need, with no distinction based on their homes’ lead levels. But that doesn’t help Vazquez.

“Of course, anything free in any urban area, the line is around the block and around the corner,” Vazquez says, driving home from the supermarket. “The water’s free, but do I have time when I’m working a full-time job to stand in line for three or four hours to get water?”

Vasquez shares a two-bedroom house with her grandmother, Wanda Barley.  At home on South 13th Street, Barley lies on the couch watching Law & Order. Vazquez then begins her second strenuous task of the night—toting gallons of water from her car into her house. Two cases of water and a 2.5-gallon jug make their way to the kitchen. Another case goes upstairs. Vazquez leaves the water she’s too tired to carry near the front door, still in its yellow Shoprite bags.

“I’ll get to them later,” she says.

In the kitchen, Vazquez prepares tea for her grandmother. She tears open a case of water, removes a bottle, and pours the contents into a teapot.

“For a long time, people didn’t care about Flint and right now people are not caring about Newark,” she says. “For a long time, I didn’t know there was anything wrong with the water, but there’s been a couple of instances where randomly the water would just turn brown.”

As the kettle heats, Vazquez goes upstairs and begins her nighttime routine.

“You would think that because the city knows there’s something wrong with the water, there would be some type of compensation or like, you wouldn’t have to pay the bill,” Vazquez says. “The bill is still due every month, you know. There’s no decrease in pricing. You’re paying whatever you were paying for your good water, now for this lead-poisoned water.”

She uses the 2.5-gallon container, with a nozzle conveniently attached to the bottom, to rinse her hands. She grabs a sponge and fills it with water—never letting it flow longer than a few seconds—adds soap and washes her face.

“I try to use as little water as possible for everything,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to trust the city’s water again.”

Downstairs, the kettle shrieks. Vazquez pours the hot water into a mug, adds a teabag, carries it to her grandmother. In addition to her other expenses, and the cost of water, Vasquez also relies on her salary to support her grandmother, but it never seems to be enough.

Later that evening, Vazquez finds herself sitting on the couch across from her grandmother, on hold with the cable company. Their phone, internet, and cable have just been cut off. She looks out the window and sighs.

“The average salary in Newark is $34,000 a year,” says Anthony Diaz of the Newark Water Coalition. Vasquez makes even less than that. Approximately 28% of Newark residents live in poverty, and 11% are unemployed. When adding the additional cost of buying water and carrying it, “it’s an actual extra burden,” says Diaz.

Driving to a public municipal council meeting, Diaz’s back seat is littered with bottles of water. Despite losing the election for a Newark City Council seat in 2018, Diaz remains an advocate. The day after organizing a protest outside the MTV Video Music Awards held in Newark in August, he quit his technical support job at a local charter school to devote himself fully to the Newark Water Coalition.

“You’re playing with people’s lives, you’re poisoning generations of children,” Diaz said of the city administration. “There’s a big correlation between lead poisoning and aggression and violence. And when you look at the history of the city of Newark and you look at the poisoning that’s been going on, you’re, like, why is this? Is there a direct correlation here? Is this responsible for why our city’s in the state that it’s in?”

New Jersey’s largest city, Newark has a violent crime rate 17% higher than the national average. Whether lead poisoning has directly contributed to that statistic is unclear, but this is not the first time Newark has faced an issue with lead in its drinking water.

In 2016, the school district shut off 400 water sources in 30 buildings. However, testing revealed there was lead in the water as far back as the 2010-2011 school year. Decades earlier in 1992, New Jersey’s large water systems were required to conduct a state-mandated study to determine a course of action for treating contaminated water. At a hearing in August 2019, city officials were unable to produce the earlier study, suggesting that the city may have not had a water treatment plan in 27 years. Moreover, a report from the State Department of Conservation and Economic Development in 1969 also stated the city’s source of drinking water was of poor quality.

Sabre Bee, co-founder of the Newark Water Coalition, argues that the city has tried to keep the crisis under wraps, lying to residents. After having her own water tested twice by the city, “the number that I got from the city was right below the actionable limit at the federal standard,” she recalled. “And then right at the actionable level of the federal standard. And then the ones that I got from the individual [private] tests were well above the actionable limit.”

Not only have residents been forced to purchase drinking water, received inadequate filters, been given expired water, and received varying test results, but those who did get free filters weren’t given proper instructions, Diaz says.

“The city never showed anyone how to use them, never told them about hot water,” Diaz says. “I was talking to a young lady last week who was like, ‘yeah, I run hot water through the filter all the time.’ And I’m like, no, that ruins the filter. Did you change it? She’s like, ‘no.’”

City officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In August, the city announced a plan to replace its archaic lead pipes. Of the 18,000 service lines it intends to replace—in over two and a half years—just 800 were replaced in 2019.

For many residents, access to clean water will have to wait.