I-TEAM: Mapping Lead in Water Across the Tri-State

Local pre-schools, shopping centers -- even a casino and a farm -- all have had high levels of lead in water samples, an I-Team analysis has revealed.

The I-Team mapped more than 300 water systems in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, where regulators have discovered lead problems. The high lead tests are plotted on the interactive map above. The bigger the dot, the higher the lead result - over the federal action level of 15 parts per billion.

Water systems affected include public water supplies and private wells used by businesses and nonprofits. The water samples date as far back as 2012, and in many cases, after regulators found too much lead, the water systems successfully brought lead levels back into compliance.

The findings come after a water crisis in Flint, Michigan, raises concerns about lead levels in water tables across the county. 

ISE Farms, one of New Jersey’s biggest egg producers, is one of the businesses that registered a high levels of lead last year.

In September, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued a violation to the Warren County facility for a lead test that was 150 parts per billion - ten times the federal action threshold.

A DEP spokesperson said the concentration of lead was detected coming out of a faucet in the female bathroom located in the farm office – not in the hen houses.

"I don’t think there is any inherent risk to the egg," said Gregg Clanton, a spokesman for ISE Farms.

Clanton emphasized that the facility has no history of problems with lead beyond this test, and after regulators re-tested the bathroom faucet it registered acceptable levels of the toxin.

Despite those assurances, the farm could not conclusively say its hens never consumed lead-tainted water, partly because state regulators only sample faucets used by humans. There is no requirement to test water used to hydrate livestock.

A 2003 study by Iowa State University found egg yolks can retain toxic levels of lead after hens consume lead paint chips.

Gerald Markowitz, a professor who studies lead poisoning at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said regulators may tend to focus on big public water systems, but more attention should be paid to all water infrastructure – including private wells that feed farms, rural communities, and business parks.

"We could require private entities to replace lead service lines, to replace lead fixtures and they bear the cost of that," Markowitz said.  "We’re not doing that."

Although regulators rarely order entities to replace all their water pipes, they do order stricter monitoring and repairs after high lead tests.

After Morristown Medical Center registered high levels of lead last month, the DEP ordered the hospital to repair a broken pump that injects chemicals to prevent lead contamination.

The facility issued a statement warning patients, employees, and other visitors that they may have been exposed to lead if they ingested tap water at the hospital between Jan. 22 and Feb. 25.

Currently, Morristown Medical Center is using bottled water for food preparation and drinking, but the facility has made repairs to the pump.

“Our system is stabilizing, and lead levels continue to decline,” said the statement.

Back at ISE Farms, the DEP has also requested owners install a chemical pump to reduce the threat of lead. But the facility has two years to install the pump, and if inspectors record a second consecutive low lead reading, the farm can discontinue plans for the new equipment.

The farm has avoided regulatory action in the past by bringing the level of other toxins down. Between 2013 and 2015, the DEP issued violations related to E. Coli, Coliform, and asbestos in the water at ISE Farms. But in each case, the DEP says the egg producer returned to compliance.

Clanton declined to talk about the farm’s past problems with asbestos, E. Coli, and coliform.

“We’ve done quite a bit of testing,” he said. “There have been farming activities on that property going back to the 1700’s.”

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