For the third consecutive testing period, samples from the Bordentown Water Department contained twice the levels of lead allowed by the federal government. Baffled local officials continue to search for answers to the most basic question: Why?
The quest for clarity has led the Bordentown City government to take a holistic approach to their water system, which serves nearly 16,000 people in the city and Bordentown Township. In addition to taking hundreds of water samples, the utility also has begun the process of digging up entire streets in order to ensure no lead piping exists in the distribution system.
City officials believe none of the pipes belonging to the utility contain lead, and insist the water source is not the problem. If true, that likely would leave the cause as lead piping, solder or fixtures within homes. The onus, then, to fix the issue would be on individual homeowners.
“We are very, very serious about this,” Bordentown City Mayor Jim Lynch said. “We are not taking this lightly. We’re not pushing blame on anything. We need to get to the problem, and we have to help either the homeowner solve it or the water utility solve it.”
Utilities across New Jersey—from Newark to Hackensack to Trenton—have grappled with lead issues in recent years. Nearby, Trenton Water Works has tested for excessive lead in three of the last four six-month sampling periods. SUEZ Water Hackensack received its first ever violation for lead in January.
Gov. Phil Murphy has acknowledged the issue, and even devoted part of his first State of the State address in January to recognize lead piping and aging water infrastructure is a problem statewide. Murphy also held a meeting with mayors whose towns have grappled with lead in the water. The mayors of Newark and Trenton were there. So was Lynch.
“I kind of felt out of place because we had nowhere near the kinds of problems they had,” Lynch said.
For this reason, the problem perplexes more in Bordentown. Nearly all the water utilities in question have lead service lines. As far as anyone knows, Bordentown doesn’t.
Yet, testing reveals Bordentown has some of the highest levels of lead in the state. TWW’s worst result of 19.7 parts per billion is still 30 percent less than Bordentown’s best, the most recent number of 28 ppb.
Meanwhile, neighboring Fieldsboro, which buys its water in bulk from Bordentown, returned a number more than twice of Trenton’s in the most recent round of testing.
Additionally concerning is that some homes continue to have high lead levels despite repeated attempts to remedy the issue. One home returned a result in the latest round of testing 48 times higher than the federal limit of 15 ppb.
Several other homes have given city officials pause because they have provided samples with high lead even after flushing the pipes. Lead levels typically diminish as water runs since lead usually leaches into water that has been resting for some time. For this reason, water utilities dealing with lead often advise customers to run the water for a minute first thing in the morning.
Bordentown City commissioner Joe Myers said a few of the sustained lead levels were due to residents improperly taking samples. But there is still a homeowner in Bordentown Township who continues to see elevated lead in the water after flushing, despite replacing the service line to the home.
“It’s not supposed to do that,” Lynch said. “Even if you have lead overnight sitting, in the morning, if you let it run for 15 seconds, the lead will pretty much go away. In these houses, it doesn’t go away. So we have to be careful not to tell people, ‘Just run the water for 30 seconds, and it will go away.’ We’re not so sure about that.”
When flushing fails to remedy a lead problem, suspicion usually turns to the water itself as a cause. City officials insist, though, that the water source isn’t the issue. Bordentown draws its water from a well drilled into an aquifer near the Crosswicks Creek. It does not take surface water, as Trenton does from the Delaware River.
The water department has tested the water at the source and at two different locations before service runs into Fieldsboro. All tests came back with low or undetectable levels of lead, Myers said. The city also tested water coming into the sewer system, with samples showing no lead, Lynch said.
‘If you have younger children, my advice would be to get them tested. We’ll help them with that.’
The city has collected nearly 400 samples from people’s homes as well, and has started to look for patterns. Mapped out, it appears the lead problems are clustered in certain areas, including on one block of Oliver Street in the city and on West Constitution Drive in Bordentown Township.
Myers said the visual could be misleading, though. The water department has focused sampling in certain areas to satisfy the DEP requirement to test homes most likely to have lead piping or lead solder.
Lynch, meanwhile, says data so far suggests that houses built in the 1980s are the most likely candidates for lead issues because of materials used during construction. He believes the city is close to targeting the source of the problem.
“In another six months from now, we should have a pretty good book of knowledge on what’s taking place here,” Lynch said. “Then we just have to work with the homeowner. We can’t afford to go into people’s houses for them, but we certainly want to help any way we can.”
To ensure pipes owned by the utility do not contain lead, the water department has dug to see the mains and service lines on eight streets. The department selected streets with houses that repeatedly exceeded the federal lead standard during testing. Upon inspection, the pipes were mostly copper. One was plastic. None have been lead, Myers said.
The water department also has begun taking inventory of its mains and service lines to comply with new state law affecting every water utility. The law also requires utilities to develop a 10-year plan for upgrading and maintaining the components of its water system.
The city currently has the draft of the plan ready, and Myers said the government will make the plan public at a dedicated meeting this month. Prior to the official public meeting, the city’s resident water advisory board will review the plan at its meeting this month. The advisory board gathering is also open to the public.
While sorting out the root of the problem, the Bordentown Water Department started introducing orthophosphate to its water this past fall. Orthophosphate forms scale, which can prevent lead in corroding pipes and fixtures from leaching into water. The amount of lead in Bordentown’s water dropped 35 percent in the six-month period after orthophosphate was introduced.
But Lynch cautioned orthophosphate does not get rid of lead, and merely masks the problem. To truly rid a water system of lead-related problems requires removing all lead from the system.
That’s easier said than done in Bordentown because most of the city’s service lines into homes are either galvanized, plastic or copper. Lynch said his house, built in the 1930s, had a galvanized service line until about 15 years ago, when it broke and was replaced with a copper pipe.
Studies have shown galvanized pipes themselves can be a source of lead. Galvanized pipes were dipped in zinc, which is impure. Those impurities often included lead. One study, published in 2015, showed that galvanized steel pipes were a primary lead source for many homes in areas that have had lead in water issues, including Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
Galvanized pipes are also known to corrode easily, and, if the pipes were ever connected to lead plumbing or service lines, the corrosion inside the galvanized pipes could have trapped bits of lead. As the pipe continues to corrode, it can release the trapped lead into the water, even if the source of the lead had been removed many years ago.
Experts say that, like lead piping, the only way to fix problems with galvanized pipes is to replace them.
That is an expensive proposition, and one local governments do not have funding to attempt, Lynch said. During his meeting with mayors, Murphy promised to appeal to the federal level for more infrastructure funding for New Jersey. Lynch also said the city plans on reaching out for help to Rep. Andy Kim, who is a Bordentown Township resident.
In the end, city officials said they will do anything in their power to ensure the quality of the drinking water and the safety of residents. That’s why, Lynch said, they are taking such a comprehensive look at the issue.
“I wouldn’t rule anything out,” Lynch said. “Our responsibility is that the city isn’t contributing to this in any way.”
In the meantime, Lynch stressed the importance of getting all children tested for lead exposure. The city also has offered to test residents’ water for lead, at no cost to the homeowner.
“If you have younger children, my advice would be to get them tested,” Lynch said. “We’ll help them with that. If they feel they want their water tested, we’re still testing. We’re still willing to test at our expense. It’s cost us a lot of money, but that’s how serious we are.”
The Burlington County Department of Health apparently agreed with Lynch’s advice, and—in partnership with Virtua Health System— held the first of two lead screening events for children in the area Feb. 25 at the Bordentown Township Senior Center. The second will be March 27 at the Carslake Community Center in Bordentown City from 5-7 p.m. Children up to age 6 can receive a free blood test via finger stick, which gives instant results. Educational materials about lead exposure will also be available.
This kind of testing is important because doctors, researchers and even government agencies agree that there is no safe level of lead for human consumption. Lead is a neurotoxin, and the human body cannot process it. Instead, it is absorbed by the teeth, bones and body tissue.
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. Pregnant women, in particular, need to be careful, as lead stored in their bodies can be released into their system during pregnancy, causing harm to the child. The effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.