New Jersey Officials blame high lead levels in Bordentown on old homes, skewed testing

Unsafe levels of lead have been detected in the water supply for Bordentown in South Jersey, which supplies drinking water to about 16,000 residents.

Bordentown, N.J.

Bordentown, N.J. (Google Maps)

Unsafe levels of lead have been detected in the water supply for Bordentown in South Jersey, which supplies drinking water to about 16,000 residents.

A test conducted in July found that during the first half of 2018, 17 percent of homes in Bordentown came up with more than 15 parts per billion of lead. The Environmental Protection Agency requires that no more than 10 percent of homes test at or above 15 parts per billion. Researchers say there is no safe level of lead to consume.

A recent report in the Burlington County Times suggested that a change in the water supply could have been the cause of the elevated levels, as it was in Flint, Michigan.

In 2016, Bordentown dug new wells because the old ones were old and “declining in capacity,” according to Larry Hajna, spokesperson for New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Hajna said that the water source didn’t really change —  the new well draws from the same aquifer as the old source, and the depth of the wells is roughly the same.

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Hajna maintains that the lead is coming from the fixtures in people’s homes. He said the biggest change since 2016 has been the method for testing lead. The EPA issued regulations in 2016 that instructed residents on how to take more accurate samples — not to run the faucet too long before testing, for example, in order to get a more accurate sample.

Rich Pepino with the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania said that would be disconcerting because it would mean that lead levels have been this high all along, the public just didn’t know how to test for it properly.

“I’m not sure that lowers any risk for people receiving that water,“ said Pepino. “Since lead has an accumulative effect, you would worry about young children may have had this exposure over time.”

When asked if the reason lead hadn’t shown up until now could just be the result of poor testing?

“It’s possible,” Hajna conceded.  “But we’re not looking at a situation where it’s widespread.”

Hajna maintained that the homes tested are not representative of the community at large. He said the municipal water boards test areas where they already believe lead levels are more likely to be higher, thus skewing the ratio of homes with elevated parts per billion.   

Bordentown Commissioner Joe Myers said that based on state guidelines, the city prioritizes houses built between 1982- 1987.

“Homes built in this timeframe used building materials that we now know can potentially result in lead levels in the water,” Meyers wrote in an email. “Therefore, the state categorizes these types of homes as tier one homes and strongly encourages municipalities to include these homes in sampling plans.”

Because the elevated levels triggered a violation of EPA standards, the township is required to take some mandatory steps with the NJDEP, which the EPA has designated its oversight agency. Normally, Bordentown would have to take an inventory of its lead service lines, but NJDEP said this particular city doesn’t have any. The city is also required to increase public education for residents so they know what the risks of lead are and how to avoid it.

“The reality is that there are homes out there and businesses that may have lead in their plumbing and in their pipes,” said Hajna. “So it’s really critical for people to have some education.”

He said Bordentown is also responsible for conducting an analysis of its water. The city is monitoring the system for calcium, temperature, pH, and other variables that may determine how corrosive the water is. Bordentown also added orthophosphate to the water, which can control corrosion. These methods are solutions geared towards water that is itself corrosive,  as opposed to the source being the fixtures in homes, which the NJDEP maintained was the source of the problem.

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