Five years after high levels of lead were detected in the water of 30 public schools in Newark, New Jersey, the city faces a new challenge of convincing residents affected by the crisis that the water is now safe to drink.
Newark resident Marcellis Counts said he grew up feeling neglected by the city and that’s caused public distrust to run deeply.
“The water is just a clear example of how things are able to be neglected,” Counts said. “Many people already knew that a lot of our water was bad anyway. So I always grew up not even drinking from water fountains when I went to school and stuff like that. So it was like that distrust.”
After major signs of contaminated water appeared in 2016, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection required Newark to monitor lead levels. The city reported lead levels above the federal action level, which they said were due to corrosion of old lead water pipes throughout the city, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Two years later, Newark reported one of the highest amounts of lead in any major U.S. city by 2018.
“We are now in panic mode in this city because the feds had to come in to tell us to stop drinking the water,” said Newark resident Donna Jackson in 2019.
Newark city leaders responded by providing water filters and water bottles to more than 40,000 households.
Shakima Thomas’ 7-year-old son, Bryce, tested positive for lead in 2018, even though she said the pipes in her home were made of copper.
“We haven’t got another test since that first test because it was such a traumatizing experience for him … So I have no idea what his level is at this point,” Thomas told ABC News.
In 2019, New Jersey officials announced a $120 million loan from the Essex County Improvement Agency, and a city ordinance, to expedite the city’s efforts to replace the lead pipes – at no cost to any resident.
Since then, Newark has replaced more than 22,000 lead service lines.
Yet, in March of 2021, Thomas paid a private lab to test the lead in her water. According to the results, the lead from her kitchen sink far exceeded what the Environmental Protection Agency says is an acceptable level.
“I felt bad, I felt terrible. I think any parent will feel that way. Here we’re supposed to protect our kids, and that’s the situation that was completely out of my control,” Thomas said.
“I can’t believe they did that to our kids,” she added.
The EPA also states there is no safe limit for lead in drinking water and that low levels of lead exposure in children have been linked to various conditions, including learning disabilities and impaired hearing.
Thomas said she also got a water test from the city of Newark in April, but the city said it had lost her results, according to emails shared with ABC News.
The city of Newark told ABC News that there are resources available to help children who have been affected by lead, but Thomas said those services were denied to her son.
“I took that as, ‘Yeah, [your child] has lead in his system, but he’s not poisoned enough for us to help.’ So that’s how I took it,” Thomas said.
According to a 2018 report by the National Institute of Health, low-income populations are disproportionately affected by lead exposure.
As of 2021, a little more than 27% of Newark’s population lives in poverty, which is more than double the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Just a few weeks ago, 4-year-old Anailah tested positive for lead. Her mother, Crystal McMillian, said that she noticed her daughter was having trouble focusing.
“I received a phone call from the doctor’s office stating that my daughter had lead levels [that are] high,” McMillian said. “It’s hard for her at times to sit down. She acts out at times and it’s just her attention span.”
McMillian said she had an inspector come to her home to test paint, which is another potential source of lead, but she says no one has come to test the water.
“They didn’t even offer to test my water to see if the water is causing the issue … They’re not concerned if the lead is coming from the water or the paint or something else that’s causing this problem,” McMillian said. “I want to know what’s causing my baby to have and her levels to be really high.”
For now, McMillian said she goes to the Newark Water Coalition Distribution site twice a week and fills jugs of water so that she can have drinking water at her home.
The Newark Water Coalition told ABC News there has not been a drop in demand for people coming to get water, despite the city replacing nearly all lead service lines.
Kareem Adeem is the Director of the Newark Department of Water and Utilities. He said that he understands that trust doesn’t come easily, but residents need to work with the city.
“Yes, we’ll be able to get someone to our house to test the water. We’re testing thousands, thousands of water samples… and one may get lost or mixed up, but we’re here to help you,” Adeem told ABC News. “Don’t get frustrated. Work with us. We’ll get it done.”
Thomas said that she’s all but done working with the city after several unsuccessful attempts to have city officials test her water.
“I don’t think I can trust my elected officials because they’ve shown that they’re unreliable consistently,” Thomas said. “The only thing I can do is buy bottled water and bank on the fact that that’s safe, but I’d rather drink that than knowing I’m drinking lead.”