NOEL KING, HOST:
Almost two weeks ago, the federal government asked the city of Newark, N.J., to start giving bottled water to residents who may have unsafe levels of lead in their drinking water. But who needs the water? Whose homes meet that unsafe standard? Residents there are confused and frustrated. And Gwynne Hogan from member station WNYC has the story.
GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: Finding out if your home in Newark has a lead service line, and thus, whether you're eligible for free bottled water, should be easy enough if you have access to the Internet.
SHEILA MONTAGUE: It's a website. And I don't have Wi-Fi. I'm not working this summer.
HOGAN: So 47-year-old Sheila Montague has come down to Newark City Hall to find out. Montague says she doesn't know if her home has lead pipes. So I try to get the city's website to work on my phone.
MONTAGUE: That's me.
MONTAGUE: Let me see.
HOGAN: You are not...
It takes a few minutes, but then...
MONTAGUE: OK. According to the city's records, you're not eligible for bottled water pickup. So what does that mean?
HOGAN: It says, our records show this residence doesn't have a lead service line - was built in 1986 or later.
MONTAGUE: So I can wash and everything.
MONTAGUE: That's comforting to know. But just imagine the people who are not down here today who don't have a idea.
HOGAN: The problem with Newark's water stems from a treatment plant that services three-quarters of the city. Chemicals meant to prevent lead from leaching into the water weren't working. So as the water traveled through a lead pipe into someone's home, it could draw in dangerous levels of the metal. But if the house has another kind of pipe - say, copper - the water may be fine.
The city has struggled to get that kind of nuanced information out to the public, to people like 32-year-old Michelle Brant. Brant's youngest son is 2.
MICHELLE BRANT: Karan. He's shy (laughter).
HOGAN: Karan already has elevated levels of lead in his blood from paint in their old apartment. Brant and her children found a new home in February that doesn't have lead paint. But what about a lead service line?
BRANT: I do not know. I do not know.
HOGAN: We search her address and find out that she does.
BRANT: Now it's like, it was lead the whole time.
HOGAN: Brant and her family had been drinking from the faucet up until earlier this month when she started buying bottled water. Now that she knows she can get it for free, she tries to get a case from a distribution site a few blocks away. But with no way to carry it home on the bus, she leaves empty-handed.
BRANT: It's all good. It's OK. I just do it another time.
HOGAN: The city became aware of the problem at the treatment plant early last year. In the fall, the city started distributing water filters to affected residents. But a recent test found a few of them weren't working. That's why the EPA told Newark to provide residents with bottled water for drinking and cooking earlier this month. The city's Mayor Ras Baraka says the news that the filters may be faulty is personal. He spoke to residents in a Facebook video.
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RAS BARAKA: About what's going on - the concept that, you know, maybe my wife who's pregnant has been drinking lead - that's in my mind. It's in her mind, you know what I mean? So I know it's in other people's minds, and it's serious.
HOGAN: So Newark has set up four distribution sites for people to get cases of water. And volunteer groups have sprung up to deliver it to those who can't get there or get it home easily.
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HOGAN: Earlier this week, a team of brawny volunteers wheeled carts of water into the lobby of a senior residence.
How many you guys dropping off here?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ninety-seven cases...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ninety-seven. We dropped off 200 at the first location.
HOGAN: There's a sign on the table that says the building has no lead pipes or connections to the street. So does that mean there's no lead in the water? Building manager Patricia Johnson isn't convinced.
PATRICIA JOHNSON: No, it shouldn't. I guess, like you said, it's the unknowing. It's the unknowing.
HOGAN: The city began a new water treatment plant in May that should reduce lead levels in the coming months. But Newark residents will be dependent on bottled water for at least a few more weeks. And the distrust and confusion about what's actually going on with their water may take much longer to remedy.
For NPR News, I'm Gwynne Hogan in Newark.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMBINATE'S "DIVIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.