NEWARK, NJ - Newark residents converged on University Hospital in Newark to get free lead screenings, united by dread of the health effects of lead amid a water contamination crisis that has no end in sight.
"It's very dangerous, especially for our kids," said Empson Venturi, of the city's North Ward, as he left his screening on Saturday with his two young children in tow. "We're scared about the symptoms of lead poisoning. The higher the level of lead in our blood, the worse the problem will be."
University Hospital's decision to offer free lead testing comes after a dramatic series of events regarding lead exposure in Newark's water.
On August 9, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed testing results showing that out of three filters provided to Newark residents by the city to reduce lead in the water to safe levels, two had failed to work.
At the same time, the EPA urged Newark residents to use bottled water for drinking and cooking until the results of the filter testing are fully understood and additional sampling is performed.
Meanwhile, bottled water distribution began on Monday at several locations throughout the city, but only for Newark residents of the western half of the city who are serviced by the Pequannock water treatment plant with lead service lines who have received filters.
Franklin Hickey, administrative director of ambulatory care at University Hospital, said there was a need to immediately help those impacted by Newark's water crisis.
"If there is an issue in the community, we don't need to wait. We have to jump on it. People are here seeking information," said Hickey, noting that approximately 150 people received a free lead screening on Saturday, a number 10 times higher than the normal amount of people participating in similar free health screenings.
"They need to know what's happening to them and if they're going to be OK," Hickey said. "With early screening, if people do have elevated lead levels in their blood, they can get treated as soon as possible."
The reported failure of the filters spurred Monisha Williams into immediate action on behalf of her children.
"It was a very huge shock when I found out that the filters weren't working. I've been using them since October [when the city began distributing filters]. I've been thinking everything is fine. I have small kids, and I was upset," said Williams as she rounded up her sons Noah and Makai Stanley, ages 5 and 7. "I'd rather be safe than sorry for me and my babies."
"I cook with this water. I drink this water," Williams said on her way back to her family's apartment in the Fairmount neighborhood. "Giving us two cases of water each isn't really going to cover the amount of contaminated water that needs to be replaced."
North Ward resident Michelle Villacres angrily questioned both the past and present response of the administration of Mayor Ras Baraka to the city's lead water crisis.
"They tricked us. They tricked Newark residents to keep quiet until they fixed what was supposed to be resolved a while ago. Obviously, it didn't work," Villacres said, accompanied by her daughters Zuleyka Esparza, 10, Eva Perez, 6, and son Patricio Perez, 4.
"Last year, my kids were prohibited from drinking from the fountain at their school because of the same problem. We were told that things were clear, and now things are not," Villacres said. "If you're trying to help us, don't keep putting us in danger."
Governor Phil Murphy has weighed in on the lead water crisis in Newark, offering to help distribute bottled water to city residents and pointing to the federal government's responsibility to improve water infrastructure.
A federal district court judge is now deciding whether the city of Newark will be compelled to expand its emergency bottled water distribution to include residents of the eastern half of Newark, who are serviced by the Wanaque water treatment plan.
While city, state, and federal authorities figure out how they are going get Newark through its growing water crisis, Empson Venturi said he can't afford to stand still. He just hopes he will be able to help his children to the best of his abilities.
"Lead damages your brain. I've been living in Newark a long time. Sometimes lately, when I don't remember a word I want to use, I wonder if it's lead or not," said Venturi, who expects results from the tests in two to three days. "But I'm not really worried about myself. I'm very worried about my kids. They're the future."
Venturi led his son Ethan, 8, and daughter Taina, 7, away from the hospital so that they can enjoy what's left of the summer.
"If something funny is in the water, it might make you think cloudier. I love math. Maybe the water won't help," Taina said.
"We want to know if we have good blood," said Ethan, scratching at the new bandage covering the spot where he was pricked for his test. "If we're sick, we can't go to school."
"Sometimes, when you get sick, you could die," said Taina, holding her brother's hand. "I don't want to get sick. I don't want to die."