East Trenton models a way to replace aging lead pipes

Catlin Fair, East Trenton Collaborative Program Director

Trenton is finally taking action to replace the thousands of corroding, century-old lead pipelines that supply drinking water to its city’s residents, but the Lead Service Line Replacement Program requires homeowners to pay some of this cost. Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, is one of the nation’s oldest cities, making a considerable portion of its infrastructure extremely outdated. City officials have not replaced the pipelines for more than 100 years, and as a result, they have undergone corrosion while developing several dangerous chemicals in the city’s drinking water. The issue has become especially prevalent in East Trenton, a small neighborhood in Trenton bordering Hamilton Township. Just by simply drinking their tap water, East Trenton residents are at risk for brain and kidney damage. This leads many residents to avoid using their taps entirely out of fear of these detrimental health effects.

Drinking water contaminated by lead can lead to serious health problems, including extreme damage to vital organs. It can have long-standing effects on infants, children, and pregnant women. Trenton Water Works (TWW) launched a Lead Service Line Replacement Program in 2020 to cleanse the contaminated water that residents are exposed to daily. Replacing these lead service lines in homes would cost about $1,000. However, this cost is more than many homeowners can afford in Trenton, as Niche reports the median income of East Trenton households is just $33,862. One example of how the government and local community groups worked together to help ease the cost burden came from East Trenton Collaborative (ETC), a community organizing initiative that helps to make East Trenton a great place to live, work, and play. ETC has received a grant from the State of New Jersey that has allowed them to replace thousands of pipelines in the area at little to no cost, replacing the old, rusty ones with new lead-free copper service lines.

How Trenton’s Contaminated Water Affects Residents 

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Contaminated water has been a recurring issue for all of Trenton’s residents for many years. Measures are being taken to reduce the lead levels in drinking water, but it remains an underlying matter within the city. NJ.gov recently released a statistic that revealed 6.4 percent of children living in Trenton had an elevated lead blood level. This percentage ranks higher than any other city in the state of New Jersey. 

Anna Lin, a junior in high school who lived in East Trenton, had several experiences with the inferior water quality in the city. Her parents own Lucky Fortune, a Chinese restaurant located in Trenton. She believes that being in an area with unsafe water drives potential customers away. 

Lin recounted occasions when tap water from the restaurant looked abnormal: “When we first let the tap water run at our restaurant, there are sometimes brown particles flowing out…one time, water from the sink was pink.” She said that, at times, it took hours for the water to appear transparent. Her parents would have to use this water to cook, holding out hope that they were not putting their customers at risk. Lin and her family had to research what might have been flowing out of the sink, as TWW was providing them with no explanation when they attempted to contact them. 

Not only does it affect the residents’ health, but the contaminated drinking water also impacts property owners. It might be more difficult for any establishment in Trenton to attract customers if people are scared that the food might make them sick, as no one knows what dangers the water might pose when consumed. 

Jevon Lin, Anna’s brother who is a year younger than her, mentioned times when customers had asked him if the water used in his family’s cooking was safe. Ultimately, he could not answer these questions because he was unaware of what contaminants or diseases the water might contain. Situations like these are very uncomfortable and out of the restaurant’s control. 

Business owners are not the only individuals impacted by Trenton’s unsafe water, as anybody living in Mercer County could be affected. East Trenton resident, Colleen O’Brien, commented on Trenton Orbit, a Facebook group where residents of the city come to talk about the city’s problems: 

“Trenton is the only location I’ve lived in (6 other states/towns) where my water taste[s] like dirt, it’s been random colors (brown, purple), and [I] have gotten multiple letters about it not meeting standards.” Many other residents feel strongly about this and believe that clean drinking water should be a right for all taxpayers.

East Trenton Collaborative’s Role in Improving Water Quality 

Trenton residents had been pleading with city officials for decades to resolve the water quality, and nothing was done about it. It changed after New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill requiring public water systems to catalog all lead pipes and replace them within 10 years. It lit a fire under TWW, prompting them to launch the Lead Service Line Replacement Program a few years back. 

Once Newark launched their service line replacement program, concerns about water quality in urban areas rose, especially those with dated infrastructure. People in the community raised this as a concern, and city officials recognized it. They worked to provoke TWW to take on an initiative. 

Pipelines in East Trenton currently have a hold on being replaced because city officials have not passed legislation to let them begin the third phase of the service line replacement. However, ETC has helped to substitute thousands of pipelines in the homes of East Trenton residents since its induction in 2020. 

Caitlin Fair is the Lead Service Line Replacement Program director who has also led additional projects with ETC. She has dedicated her career to helping others, working with non-profit organizations, and advocating for the reform of Trenton.

However, a major concern for Trenton homeowners was having to pay for replacing their lead service lines, when many already live in extreme poverty and are spending a lot of money on buying bottled water for drinking. All of Trenton’s neighborhoods are made up mostly of minorities, and East Trenton is specifically impoverished. Statistics from Neighborhood Scout state that 83.7 percent of children living in East Trenton live in poverty, a number that is 99.5 percent higher than what is typically found in American neighborhoods. 

It might come at a small price, but Trenton residents are forced to spend money on bottled water rather than using their tap at home. Even the Lin family mentioned that if they were to drink tap water from their home, they would boil it first as a precaution. Residents must resort to using bottled water for rudimentary household activities, whether boiling water for tea or washing dishes. It carries a much more expensive cost than using a tap and being charged directly out of a water bill.

Caitlin Fair worked to omit these financial concerns for residents. “We applied for grant funding that would essentially cover the $1,000 cost for homeowners and subsidies through the grant funding so that they could replace their lead service lines at no cost,” Fair stated. This is a huge relief for East Trenton residents, as many live in extreme poverty. Although not everyone would obtain this advantage, the benefits greatly outweigh the negatives in this scenario. Payments are made quarterly over a five-year period, which equates to a cost of $50 every three months. Some people are dissatisfied about paying a fee for clean drinking water, but the actual installment cost for the ETC is $6,000 per East Trenton resident. Therefore, the organization saves hundreds of thousands of dollars for those whose homes are involved in the program. 

Residents found out about the Lead Service Line Replacement Program through postcards that ETC mailed, including advertisements on their website and social media. Although the grants are a big help for residents of East Trenton, they do not extend to other parts of the city, where homeowners will have to find other means of paying the hefty bill. That is what makes ETC’s program so unique. 

Fair explained that every program the ETC has formed is resident-driven. They organized this project because the lead in Trenton’s water has negatively impacted many citizens. “We have several residents who have personal stories of themselves or their children having tested for elevated blood lead levels,” Fair said. “Some had short-term impacts while others had long-term impacts.” 

The organization did not request funding from the government but rather directly through TWW. Fair stated going through government officials would have taken too long, and the issue had to be addressed immediately. They originally wanted to do the service line replacement free of cost, but TWW thought that adding new service lines would add value to the homes, thus charging homeowners the $1,000 fee. East Trenton residents have seen a significant improvement in water quality since the program commenced, which is largely in part due to the ETC’s contributions.

Several resources are available to community members in Trenton to help test the quality of their drinking water. ETC has compiled a list of resources on its website for Trenton residents on ways to limit their exposure to lead and other preventative measures to keep them and their families safe from the dangers of lead contamination. Lead exposure can have serious health implications, particularly for children because of their developing bodies. For this reason, families with children need to be aware of their rights and take steps to protect their health. 

Organizations such as Henry J. Austin, Capital Health, and the Trenton Health Clinic offer services that allow children to be tested for lead annually until the age of six. Further, ETC and Lead-Free NJ have collaborated to develop a Lead Resource Card in which a variety of resources related to lead testing, pipe replacement, and home assessments in Trenton and its surrounding areas are provided. Several preventative measures and practices that one can adopt to safeguard oneself and one family from the risk of lead contamination are also provided in this resource. 

Lack of Trust in Trenton Water Works 

TWW has recently improved at taking action promptly, but questions arise whether they are just trying to escape the vitriol that residents have confronted them with. Many people still do not trust the city’s water because of the issues it has had in the past. 

Daisy De Paz expressed her frustrations regarding Trenton’s water: “We used to have frequent advisories saying there is too much chlorine, lead, or some other bacteria in our water,” De Paz said. She has been a resident for over 20 years and mentioned that Trenton Water Works did not always relay the information clearly when there were advisories. Although the water quality is improving, it still has a way to go before it can be considered “safe.”

TWW has lost the trust of many Trenton residents due to its mishaps in the past. Kenneth Miles, a resident of New Jersey’s capital and founder of the Trenton Journal, claimed that “people feel like city officials are not being forthright when it comes to the safety of the water,” a stance many Trenton residents hold. 

Aside from boiling water for coffee or his few other daily routines, Miles does not trust the water in his tap enough to use it consistently. He also cited Trenton’s history of carrying midges in the water in addition to Legionnaires disease, a severe type of pneumonia transmitted to humans through water and soil particles. Two individuals in Mercer County recently died from Legionnaires disease, which they contracted from drinking water served by TWW.

A user on Reddit in 2022 backed up Miles’ complaints of having midges in the water pipes. They stated: “I have been having this issue with Trenton water for two years now and I’m so fed up. We have midges in our water supply from Trenton water. They constantly deny the problem and have done nothing to fix it.” Even when this user tried to contact TWW and the city’s mayor, they received no response. Government officials seem uninterested in resolving this issue. 

Miles thinks the reason this is getting such limited coverage in the media is because of Trenton’s demographic. He mentioned that this would not be going on for as long as it has if this issue were present in Princeton, a much wealthier city with a majority Caucasian population. Despite its 15-minute proximity to Trenton, they rarely have environmental concerns. 

Aisha Swaray, a junior at Trenton Central High School, described times in her elementary school experience when the water quality was poor. She voiced how schools would have to shut down their water supply because of notifications regarding lead in the water. “Knowing I might have drank some of the water makes me feel gross,” says Swaray. She still uses bottled water for cooking and avoids water from her home’s faucet. 

East Trenton has, for the most part, resolved the issue of high lead levels in the water. ETC has done a great job resolving several problems in the neighborhood. However, there are still complaints about discoloration and abnormal particles in tap water. Additionally, not many organizations exist to help the residents in West, North, or South Trenton, so the city as a whole still lacks representation. 

Even if the water quality is improving, many residents still do not trust the cleanliness and safety of their drinking water. The long-standing history of this issue and the fact that government officials have not seemed urgent to address it has lost the trust of many Trenton households.

The impact of lead exposure

Drinking water contaminated with lead or simply being exposed to lead in the environment, such as in paint, can harm one’s health. Even low exposure to lead can cause impaired cognitive and neurobehavioral abilities. Some of these impaired abilities include decreased learning and memory, decreased verbal ability, early signs of hyperactivity or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), impaired speech and hearing functions, and lowered IQ. Signs and symptoms that may result from low exposure to lead include irritability, lethargy, mild fatigue, myalgia or paresthesia, and occasionally abdominal discomfort. However, the symptoms become more severe the higher the exposure to lead. 

Victims of moderate lead exposure may experience arthralgia or joint pain, constipation, difficulty concentrating, muscular exhaustion, abdominal pain, general fatigue, headache, tremors, vomiting, or weight loss. Yet the symptoms caused by high lead exposure are much more extreme than any other exposure level. High exposure to lead causes colic, or intermittent, severe abdominal cramps, and encephalopathy which may abruptly lead to seizures, change in consciousness, coma, or even death, and paresis or paralysis.

Perhaps the most terrifying part of enduring exposure to lead is that many patients who suffer from lead poisoning are asymptomatic, hence why it is important to receive an exposure assessment and screening by a doctor. Children may appear asymptomatic at a low-level lead exposure dose, and with increasing exposure, the likelihood and severity of symptoms can be expected to increase. Therefore, it is crucial that a clinician recognizes ongoing lead exposure, interrupts the vulnerability, and treats the patient appropriately. An early diagnosis and treatment is the most effective method to prevent constant exposure.

The first signs of lead poisoning in children are often subtle neurobehavioral problems that adversely affect classroom behavior and social interaction. However, even a complete physical examination may not identify subtle neurological effects that may be associated with low levels of lead exposure in children. Failure to correctly identify signs and symptoms of lead poisoning can lead to misdiagnosis and thus misguided medical treatments. For example, patients exhibiting impaired neurological behaviors due to lead exposure may have been treated for peripheral neuropathy, further delaying treatment for lead intoxication. The failure to accurately diagnose gastrointestinal distress due to lead poisoning has led to inappropriate abdominal surgery. Unfortunately, a misdiagnosis, mistreatment, or delayed treatment can leave victims facing current health effects today. If exposure leads to neurological or developmental issues in children, they may need intervention in the form of special education in school.

As a result, healthcare providers should check victims of lead exposure for changes in the nervous system, specifically behavioral changes, check blood pressure to evaluate whether the patient is hypertensive, and check for a purplish line on the gums (lead line) which usually indicates severe and prolonged lead poisoning. With specific regard to children potentially exposed to lead, healthcare providers should be mindful to evaluate and document the child’s hearing, speech, and other developmental milestones, and consider nutritional status, diet, and overall dietary behaviors because iron and calcium deficiencies are known to enhance the absorption of lead.

Find out if you have a lead service line

Check your address using a map and learn simple steps to test the material of your water service line by clicking here.

This article is the second in a series written by TCNJ student reporters Joshua Schulman, Oliver Li, Dhruva Patel, Madison Frunzi, as part of a class project on environmental justice issues affecting Trenton residents. You can reach the professor, Ambreen Ali, at aliam@tcnj.edu

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