By now, you’ve read the story, or heard a version of it from someone who has: An elevated level of lead in Verona’s water supply has prompted the town to mail out a letter alerting residents to health dangers of lead. Sounds scary, right?
Trouble is, there’s a lot more to the story and when you learn it, you’re likely to conclude that this is not a big deal at all.
In 1993, 30 Verona homes were selected to be a control group for a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection test for contaminants in household water, including lead. This test, which is conducted on the water inside these houses, is separate from the larger town tests on the municipal water supply, the results of which are mailed out to residents every year. You also need to know that water can corrode just about anything over time and, prior to 1986, there was lead in the solder used to seal pipe joints. (The solder now approved by the state is called lead-free, but does in fact contain traces of lead.)
In the early years of the program, the Verona homes were tested annually. But when Verona switched to well water early this decade, the water was found to be so much less corrosive that Verona was allowed to only test its water every three years. The sampling that prompted the alarmist headline in the Star Ledger was from the last three-year cycle, ended December 31, 2009. It found 0.046 milligrams of lead per liter of water, which is above the 0.015 threshold set by the DEP.
But the elevated level was confined to just two of the 30 homes in the control group. The previous three-year sample found 0.0068 milligrams of lead per liter of water for the entire group, and the annual surveys in 2004 and 2005 found zero–that’s right, no lead at all. A follow-up sampling this year showed the lead levels had dropped back to 0.003 milligrams. (All the results are here.)
So what caused the elevated levels? Both town and state officials are in agreement that the problem was not caused by the municipal water supply. “The water has been tested and confirmed to be lead free,” says Tim Newton, Verona’s water operator, “and I mean lead free as in zero.”
No, folks, the culprit appears to be remodeling. Yup. Matt Maffei, supervisor of the state Bureau of Safe Drinking Water and Implementation, theorizes that, despite the ban, lead soldering could have been used. “It could also be caused by improperly grounded electrical work,” he says, “or the fixtures may contain higher levels of lead.”
One more thing: The town’s letter, and state and federal lead poisoning Web sites talk about the dangers of lead poisoning in very stark terms. But the actual incidence of lead poisoning is very rare. According to a state report on lead levels in children, of the 22,734 children screened in Essex County in fiscal 2007 (the most recent period for which data is available), 11,006 showed some exposure to lead, of which 10,671 were a blood lead level less than 10, which is considered borderline. Only one child of the 22,734 tested had a level higher than 45, which is considered serious. State data is only broken out for cities with populations above 35,000, so the closest we can come to getting a handle on how much of a lead problem Verona children might have is by looking at Montclair. Of the 1,048 children tested there, only 360 had an elevated blood lead level, 352 of whom were below 10. No children in Montclair had lead levels above 45.
So what do you do about all of this? If you are remodeling now, make sure your plumber is using lead-free solder and only choose fixtures that have been certified lead-free by the National Sanitation Foundation. “Don’t go changing the pipes in your house over this,” says Bill LaRiccia, who has been a plumber in Verona for decades. If you want, you can install a filter on the kitchen sink, where most of the drinking glasses in your home are filled. That should run you $400 to $500.
Thanks for taking the time to investigate this story. It’s a real service to our residents.
Excellent article. Extremely informative and accurate. I hope residents who were concerned can now rest easy.