Access to clean water is a human right. With the multitude of failiures within our water infrastructure across the nation and at home, it seems as though this right is not guaranted. There are many issues in regards to water safety, ranging from chemicals that cause cancer to inadequate purification leaving unsafe levels of bacteria. However, the greatest and most damaging issue is lead (Pb).
The science behind safe drinking water is deceptively simple and yet complex to manage. For water to be potable—safe to drink—it has to go from a source like a river, lake, or reservoir, through a treatment process, then through a series of mains, lines, and pipes to our taps.
Typically, the source water is free of heavy metal contaminants but not of biological contaminants, among other things. Think of your typical river or lake, and if you’d like to take a drink from the shore!
The next step in the process is a treatment facility. First, the water is filtered, removing sediment and other filterable contaminants. Next is chemical treatment, where it gets complicated. Water engineers have the important and delicate job of balancing cleaning the water, not making us ill from those chemicals, and managing the corrosivity of the water so that it doesn’t become contaminated from our aged municipal infrastructures.
The lead comes into our water, not from the source water, but between treatment the tap in your home. Some of the chemicals that water treatment facilities use to make the water safe for use to drink need balanced in such a way to prevent lead from entering the water in your home. Many municipalities fail or are unable to manage this and outsource this management to for-profit water companies.
The problem with the Newark water system, a problem that will run downstream to other communities, is caused by inadequate chemical controls that were supposed to protect us and our water infrastructure. This is not a problem unique to Newark, but municipalities in Union and Essex counties who have been buying water from the Newark system are at a higher risk of ineffective chemical controls and increased lead and heavy metal content in their drinking water.
No amount of lead is safe, however, the EPA has set a limit of 15 parts per billion—not as a safe amount, but rather as a level at which action has to be taken. Older homes are served by Lead Service Lines, but even in homes built as recently as 2014, lead was used in fixtures ranging from faucets to valves.