Sunday (August 11), elected officials for Newark announced that the city will distribute free bottled water to residents whose tap water may contain high levels of lead.

The move came in response to a letter that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent to the city on Friday (August 9), urging Newark to offer bottled water to any residents with lead pipes “as soon as possible.” From the letter: “We are unable at this time to assure Newark residents that their heath is fully protected when drinking tap water filtered through these devices.”

As Colorlines previously reported, in 2016, the water in 30 Newark public schools tested positive for elevated levels of lead. One year later, tests of samples of tap water from residences showed elevated lead levels. In response, Mayor Ras Baraka and other elected officials said that it was not the water, but the city’s aging pipes that were the problem. In April 2018, the city’s website said water in Newark was “absolutely safe to drink.” But in a January 2019 letter that Baraka sent to President Donald Trump, he said the lead service lines needed to be replaced to the tune of $70 million.

In October, officials distributed 40,000 free water filters to homes that draw water from the Pequannock Treatment Plant. This was after a study found that lead was leaching into this water because of ineffective corrosion treatment at the plant, which is in West Milford, New Jersey. Officials insisted that the water was safe for the rest of the majority-Black city of approximately 282,000 people.

Reports The New York Times:

The decision to provide bottled water—a measure used during the water crisis in Flint, Michigan—came after testing this month showed that water filters provided by the city were not properly removing lead. It was Newark’s strongest effort yet to address the problem and an acknowledgment of the severity of the public health crisis.

Following the EPA’s letter, The Times reports that Baraka only recommended that pregnant women and young children—not all Newark residents—should use bottled water, asserting that without additional testing it was unclear if the water was dangerous for everyone. “We don’t know either way,” he said. “We don’t have enough information to make that determination.”

Free bottled water is currently only available for those residents of the Pequannock service area who have lead service lines and received filters.

On Thursday (August 15), there will be a court appearance for the lawsuit that the Natural Resources Defense Council brought against Newark and the state of New Jersey for violating federal safe drinking water laws. Lead exposure in children can negatively impact IQ, concentration and academic achievement. It can also lead to a decrease in fertility and an increase in infant deaths.