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Tap water at risk closer to home; many pipes in North Jersey made of lead

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Some parts of North Jersey are a lot like Flint, Mich.: old, industrial and poor, with many people living in houses built before World War II, drinking tap water that streams through pipes and fixtures made of lead.

Flint’s belated discovery of dangerously high levels of lead in tap water prompted a health emergency that has made national headlines. Lead in water has long been a problem in North Jersey and elsewhere, but aside from precautions utilities take to guard the water, they most often urge people to live with it by flushing their lines.

That may be changing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering requiring the removal of lead service lines — the pipes that deliver drinking water leading into peoples’ homes. The lines are considered the main culprit in depositing lead sediment in the drinking glass.

Removing these old lead lines and replacing them with copper or plastic was one of the recommendations made by the National Drinking Water Advisory Council to the EPA in December. The council has also recommended expanding lead testing to include a broader cross-section of homes.

Now it’s up to the environmental agency, which is fashioning a new lead and copper rule, with an eye toward adoption by 2018.

Lynn Thorp, the national campaigns director for Clean Water Action, said removing service lines is expensive and complicated. But it’s the surest way to keep drinking water safe from lead, she said.

“If there’s no safe level of lead, and our efforts to control and monitor lead in the water will never be perfect, then there’s only one solution,” she said. “And that’s to get the lead out of contact with the drinking water.”

Flint plans to remove all 15,000 of its lead service lines, estimated to cost $55 million. But as a poor city, it needs to find a funding source and is looking for help from both Congress and the Michigan state legislature.

Service lines connect the home to the water main at the curb and generally are the homeowners’ responsibility. In structures that were built before 1940, these pipes were made of lead. Since then, these service lines have been made of copper or plastic, but in many older neighborhoods, the lead lines are still being used.

United Water, which serves much of Bergen County, estimates there are 9,500 lead service lines still in use, about 5 percent of the utility’s 202,000 customers.

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