Testing has revealed elevated levels of lead in drinking water in enough Trenton-area homes to trigger a federal mediation requirement.

Trenton Water Works—the water utility for parts of Ewing, Hamilton, Lawrence and Trenton—found 14 of the locations it tested this spring contained lead in concentrations greater than the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s action level limit of 15 parts per billion. The elevated results sat mostly between 16 ppb and 30 ppb, but one test showed a level of 106 ppb—a concentration 21 times higher than what scientists consider safe. Another 66 locations had some trace of lead in the water, although not at levels exceeding EPA standards.

Of the 14 tests with elevated lead, six were in Trenton, four in Hamilton, three in Lawrence and one in Ewing, state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna said in an interview.

TWW tested 119 samples in total. Since more than 10 percent of its samples had elevated lead levels, TWW was required by EPA regulations to notify its customers that their drinking water may contain lead. TWW customers received a notice in the mail Aug. 14. The notice also contained tips its clients could take to avoid consuming water with high lead levels, as well as TWW’s plan to avoid future violations. Both were required to satisfy EPA rules.

TWW’s letter, however, came without notice, and sparked widespread confusion. It did not contain information about the how prevalent the issue was, where the issue was found or just how elevated the lead levels were. It simply said, “Trenton Water Works found elevated levels of lead in drinking water in some homes/buildings. Lead can cause serious health problems, especially for pregnant women and young children,” before providing general information about lead.

The letter surprised public officials as much as it did area residents.

Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede released a statement soon after the letter hit mailboxes Aug. 14, saying TWW had not notified Hamilton Township about the violations. Ewing Mayor Bert Steinmann issued similar statement Aug. 15, and Ewing Township posted a list of DEP-approved water testing laboratories on its website Aug. 18, citing an “overwhelming” amount of requests for the information.

When Hamilton Township published an update to its website the morning of Aug. 15, it was the first time the public had any information about how many samples showed elevated levels and where those samples were taken. Lawrence Township followed suit on its website the same day, with information about the number of tests and number of elevated samples in Lawrence.

Yet, so vast was the confusion that the City of Trenton released a statement later Aug. 15 with information that differed from what the DEP or the suburban municipalities had reported. Trenton’s release said Lawrence had four elevated samples and Ewing none, and stuck by those numbers when questioned. This was despite the DEP insisting its information was accurate, and despite officials from suburban municipalities saying they had received their information from the same source as the City of Trenton: Trenton Water Works.

Weeks later, questions still lingered, and TWW customers were left wondering about the quality of their water. An attempt to answer a few of the most common questions:

Why did I receive a letter from Trenton Water Works?

As a precaution, the EPA requires all water utilities to test a “statistically significant” number of locations in its service area periodically. These tests occur during a six-month period, typically in locations that are most susceptible to high lead concentrations, such as the tap in older homes. According to the state DEP website, the water utility sends instructions and collection bottles to customers. Samples are taken by customers first thing in the morning from a faucet in the kitchen or bathroom that has not been used for at least six hours, and then returned to the water utility for testing.

TWW conducted its latest round of testing in the first six months of 2017. When TWW received results showing more than 10 percent of samples—14 of 119—with lead concentration levels above the EPA limit, it was required by federal law to notify its customers. TWW sent out three distinct letters—one to homes in the testing group that returned a sample with elevated lead levels, another to the remaining 105 homes that submitted samples, and a third to the rest of TWW’s customers. The vast majority received the third letter.

Since the results show TWW serves an area susceptible to elevated levels of lead in the water, the utility will have to do another round of testing in six months. And, if those results show more than 10 percent of samples higher than the federal limit, TWW will once again have to send a letter to its customers.

So, this could happen again?

Yes. Utilities are required to test copper and lead levels every six months until fewer than 10 percent of its samples show levels above federal standards. Once this occurs, monitoring is reduced to once a year. If a utility goes three years without violating the standards, then it may test once every three years.

How does lead get into our drinking water?

Lead does not typically contaminate water at the source, instead entering water as the result of corrosion of pipes or fixtures. Homes with lead service lines (the pipes that connect homes to water mains) and brass faucets are particularly at risk. When water sits in those pipes or faucets for an extended period of time, it can dissolve the lead into it.

Simply put, lead most likely isn’t entering your water until it’s at your home, and there’s only so much utilities like Trenton Water Works can do to ease the issue. Water utilities across the country are having similar issues as infrastructure ages, and the problems aren’t likely to abate until the source of the issue—old pipes and fixtures—are replaced. On the other hand, it’s also important to remember 88 percent of the samples TWW received this year did not have elevated lead levels.

Still, Hajna recommended homeowners be aware about what materials their pipes are made of. Some older neighborhoods have pre-1947 galvanized lead service pipes. Buildings constructed before 1986 most likely have service line piping with lead solder or in-home fixtures that contain lead. Any neighborhood or building like that, not just those in TWW’s service area, would have the potential for elevated lead levels in its water. So do buildings with brass faucets, fittings and values, even those advertised as “lead-free.” According to the letter mailed by TWW, until January 2014, any fixture with up to 8 percent lead could be marked as “lead free.”

Is it safe to bathe or shower in the water?

Yes, according to the Centers for Disease Control, because human skin does not absorb lead in water. This is true even if the water contains lead in a concentration above the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion.

I’m confused by all these terms. What is ppb? And is water with lead at 15ppb really safe?

Parts per billion, or ppb, is a unit of measure that means one part of one billion. In the most basic terms, laws in the United States say that if a sample has one billion drops in it, fewer than 15 drops in that sample can be lead.

Opinions on the “safe” level of lead vary. The World Health Organization set a standard of 10 ppb, which has been adopted by Australia, Canada and the European Union. At this number, the TWW results would have had four additional results classify as “elevated,” a total of 18. That’s 15 percent of all samples.

But researchers from Virginia Tech University dealing with water pollution issues in Flint, Michigan, have a more stringent standard. They have defined amounts as little as 5 ppb to be a “significant contamination problem,” of concern especially to children and pregnant women. Of the 119 samples taken by TWW, 38 samples—or nearly 32 percent of all tests—returned results above this level.

Why is lead seen as so dangerous?

Lead is a naturally occurring element. When consumed, it is distributed throughout the body like other minerals—iron, calcium and zinc, for example. The body does not have a use for lead, and is unable to eliminate it. So, instead lead is stored in your body. Lead is toxic to humans, and exposure to small amounts of lead over time can cause a build up to harmful levels.

Lead gets much of its reputation because, at extremely high levels of exposure, it can cause convulsions, brain injury, behavioral disorders or even death in children, according to the World Health Organization. Lower levels of exposure, like those in water, cause no obvious symptoms but can affect children’s brain development and can cause anemia, hypertension, renal impairment and immunotoxicity. The neurological and behavioural effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.

In adults, elevated lead blood levels can cause high blood pressure, kidney damage and memory and neurological problems. Lead can interfere with the production of red blood cells. Pregnant women, in particular, need to be careful, as lead stored in the teeth and bones can be released into their system during pregnancy, causing harm to the child.

According to the CDC, exposure to lead-contaminated water alone would not be likely to elevate blood lead levels in most adults, even at the EPA action level of 15 ppb. Risk varies based on the person and circumstances, though. Children, for example, are at a higher risk in part due to the volume of water they consume relative to their body size.

What is Trenton Water Works doing to prevent this from happening again?

TWW will continue to monitor its water for contaminants, and is in the preliminary stages of implementing a corrosion control study, which will help reduce lead levels by identifying problem areas. TWW currently controls corrosiveness by adjusting the pH of its water. Depending on the outcome of its study, it may need to replace service lines or start adding chemicals to prevent further corrosion of its lines.

Trenton Water Works also now must test further to see if the utility itself is the source of lead found in these samples. Trenton Public Works Director Merkle Cherry said in an interview that the quality of the water is not in question. TWW uses the Delaware River as it water source, and the river isn’t known as a lead-contaminated source.
“The lead is limited to specific residences,” Cherry said.

Cherry also said TWW already has a “significant” infrastructure improvement and replacement plan in place. This is separate from the lead issue but could help solve the problem. If pipes made of lead or with lead solder are replaced, then there’s no lead to enter the water on the service end.

What can I do to prevent lead from getting into my water? Will my Brita work?

Most household filters do not remove lead, but there are other ways to reduce exposure to lead in drinking water.

The DEP recommends residents let their water run from the tap, cold, for roughly 15-30 seconds before using it for drinking or cooking. The Centers for Disease Control, however, ups that time to one to two minutes. This needs to be done for each tap you want to use, as pollution at the faucet is possible.

Flushing the system is important because measures like boiling do not remove lead from water. Trenton Water Works also recommends using cold water for cooking, as hot water can dissolve lead in the pipe quicker than cold water.

There are filters available that can remove lead, but be sure it is rated by the National Sanitation Foundation to do so.

And, if none of that eases your concern, the TWW advised in its letter to seek alternative sources of water, such as bottled water.

There’s also the costly step of replacing any pipes and fixtures in your home that contain lead.

How can I tell if there’s lead in my water?

Lead is clear, odorless and tasteless. The only way to discover if there is lead in your water is to test for it.

Home water tests can be purchased at home improvement stores, or for a cost, homeowners can hire a DEP certified laboratory to test.

Trenton Water Works also has resources to refer homeowners to a testing agency, at cost to the customer. Rumors circulated last month that TWW would test its customer’s water for free; that is not true, Cherry said. TWW clients can call the utility to find out how to get their water tested, but any tests would be at the customer’s expense.

For more information, call Trenton Water Works at (609) 989-3640, or visit the DEP’s website at nj.gov.