- Pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha rose to fame in 2015 when she revealed an uptick in blood-lead levels among children in Flint, Michigan.
- Her findings led to the discovery that more than 100,000 residents were being poisoned in their own homes by a contaminated water source, the Flint River.
- Now Hanna-Attisha is calling attention to a crisis in Newark, New Jersey, where water tests have shown lead levels that exceed the federal action level for safe drinking water.
- Hanna-Attisha said the crisis in Newark is now worse than the current situation in Flint.
- “When I walk the streets of Newark, I feel like I am walking in Flint,” she said.
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If you turn on the tap in Newark, New Jersey, the water may seem normal, but state records from the last two years indicate that it could contain elevated levels of lead, a metal that’s harmful to human health even in trace amounts.
“We don’t see lead in water,” said Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and professor at Michigan State University. “It’s clear, it’s colorless, it’s odourless, it’s tasteless.”
If anyone is familiar with the properties of lead, it’s Hanna-Attisha. In 2015, she helped blow the lid off the Flint drinking water crisis by revealing an uptick in blood-lead levels among Flint children. The data she released wasn’t peer reviewed at the time, so Hanna-Attisha risked her career by making it public – but by then the issue had become a matter of conscience.
11 cities with the worst tap water in the US
Children exposed to lead can suffer permanent brain damage, which often results in learning disabilities and increased violent behaviour. In adults, chronic exposure to low levels of lead can cause nausea, seizures, and reproductive issues.
“For about a year and a half, the crisis was ongoing and I was telling my patients that everything was ok,” Hanna-Attisha said.
When mothers asked her about the best ways to formula-feed their children, she encouraged them to mix their formula with tap water, which the city said was safe. As it turns out, more than 100,000 residents were being exposed to elevated lead levels through their home’s contaminated water source, the Flint River.
Newark’s water crisis is mirroring Flint
Four years later, the tragedy has begun to wind down in Flint – households are equipped with water filters, lead levels have been reduced, and pipes are being replaced – but a new crisis has taken its place in Newark, the largest city in New Jersey about an hour outside Manhattan.
At its zenith in the 19th century and early 20th century, Newark was a booming industrial town, but a combination of white flight and deindustrialization led to decades of decline. Today, around 28% of the city is impoverished – more than double the US average.
“When I walk the streets of Newark, I feel like I am walking in Flint,” said Hanna-Attisha. “Here’s a city that has suffered from disinvestment, unemployment, population loss, decades of neglect, violence, crime, and mass incarceration – all these other issues that make it toxic for children to grow up.”
On top of that, the water could be making people sick.
Since January 2017, Newark’s water has been tested five times by the state. With each result, the lead levels have exceeded 15 parts per billion – the threshold used by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to require public water systems to “take action” to reduce lead contamination.
Hanna-Attisha, who believes that no amount of lead is safe, called the EPA threshold “a crappy standard” that “hasn’t really caught up with science.”
The World Health Organisation has issued a lower safety threshold for lead in drinking water of 10 parts per billion, while the American Academy of Pediatrics has called upon governments to ensure that water fountains in schools don’t exceed 1 ppb.
From January to June 2019, state records show lead levels of 52 parts per billion in Newark – more than three times the EPA threshold. The highest recorded sample in that batch showed a lead level of 544 parts per billion. The previous monitoring period, conducted from July to December 2018, showed lead levels of 48 parts per billion.
Newark now has some of the highest levels of lead in drinking water in the country.
“It’s a crisis,” said Hanna-Attisha. “This is an entire population that’s being exposed.”
Not all households have received water filters, a critical tool for keep them safe
Because the city hasn’t declared a state of emergency, Hanna-Attisha said, some residents haven’t grasped the scope of the problem.
“Everybody I talk to, I’m like, ‘Have you heard about Newark? Do you know what’s going on?'” she said. “This is what keeps me up at night.”
In May, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka told local residents that the city was working “aggressively” to distribute water filters and pay to replace lead service lines. “Newark is not Flint,” he said.
The City of Newark did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
Hanna-Attisha said if you were to compare the two crises today, Newark’s situation is worse. That’s why she began pitching in to educate residents about how to keep themselves safe.
The first thing people should do, she said, is install an NSF 53 filter, the kind distributed by the city to homes served by the Pequannock Water System. That includes every community except the East Ward, where residents have been told that their water is safe, despite household tests in 2018 that showed elevated lead levels.
Hanna-Attisha said installing filters is tricky, since they need to be attached at “the point of use,” or the end of a faucet, which is essential for weeding out contaminants. The filter’s cartridges must also be replaced regularly.
For bathing young children, Hanna-Attisha recommends quick, lukewarm showers. Whatever people do, she said, they should never boil their water, which can actually increase the concentration of lead.
But these are short-term solutions. In the long-term, she said, Newark needs to replace its ageing pipes and provide healthcare for children who may have been exposed to contaminants for two years.
“What are you going to do to make sure that you do not see the consequences?” she said. “That’s what we’ve been doing in Flint.”
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