Dishes, pasta, and brushing teeth. What it’s like in Newark to live on bottled water.

Sept 7, 2019

Geegee Moore crouched by the bottom of her opened refrigerator, placing water bottles in neat lines in the right hand corner. She divvies them up -- some bottles for the fridge, some for the freezer, and some on the floor in her kitchen.

“It’s so much you need—you don’t realize how much...water being contaminated affects you,” she said. “You need to make rice, you need to make coffee, like different things, Kool-Aid, different things throughout the day that consist of water.”

After she finished filling the fridge up, she grabbed a chilled bottle to take a sip, a small reward for finishing the necessary work of unloading the heavy cases into her home.

Moore, 41, is one of thousands of Newark residents forced to adjust their daily routines of cooking, cleaning, and drinking, as the city continues to grapple with a lead crisis that started in 2017.

City officials are trying to understand why the temporary filters intended to lower lead levels have not done as well as expected. In the meantime, they have set up mass-scale bottled water distributions to Moore and other residents for cooking and drinking.

Moore was using a filter, but questioned the effectiveness of it, as she now uses bottled water for most tasks, including washing dishes. As a newcomer to Newark—she and her daughter Shamaire moved from Baltimore a year ago—she’s been satisfied with the communication between the city and residents.

However, as a parent, she says she’s focused on keeping her daughter safe and healthy. Moore, whose 14-year-old daughter has sickle cell disease, says she’s unsure whether or not the lead water can make matters worse for Shamaire.

Since Shamaire likes crushed ice, Moore uses two bottles every day to make ice, ensuring her daughter is hydrated with clean water, which is crucial to a person with the disease.

“When you have a sickly kid, that’s a major [concern],” she said. “You need to know what’s going on around you in the environment because sickle cell...is affected by the environment.”

High levels of lead exposure can lead to anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lead also affects children more than it does adults, and can result in adverse neurological effects and mental capabilities.

“Because we’re really worried about the lead intake,” she said, “being that [Shamaire] has the sickle cell I don’t know if that will worsen her chances.”

The city is working on a permanent fix to the problem—replacing the old pipes that are causing lead to leach into the water, which affect 18,000 homes across the city, including Moore’s. But until officials solve the filter problem, Moore will continue carrying cases into her home.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon with the temperature hovering around 90 degrees, Moore lugged four cases of bottled water—the amount city officials distribute every two weeks—to her West Ward home for herself, Shamaire, and their seven-month-old pitbull, Queen.

She carried the cases up the five or six steps to her front porch and then a dozen or so carpeted stairs up her house to reach the main living area, before finally depositing some bottles in the refrigerator.

“It takes a lot more than just to pick the water up,” she said. There was an intentionally empty space on the lower shelf, which Moore filled with water bottles.

Shamaire carried a small, metal bowl of cold water over to Queen when they got home, who happily lapped up the fresh water. Queen gets a bottle of water in the morning, afternoon, and evening, which Moore pointed out can add up.

Add to that, portioning water for brushing their teeth, cooking pasta or rice, and making coffee, the water supply tends to deplete quickly.

“You gotta think about it very wisely like you how you gotta portion your money, you gotta budget your water, like you budget your money,” Moore said. “You always need more water than you got.”

Remembering to use the water for automatic actions like brushing your teeth is an extra inconvenience, she said. You either have to keep some water in the bathroom to brush with or remember to grab a bottle and bring it in early in the morning, she said, which doesn’t cover the difficulty of using bottled water for your teeth.

“Oh let me look for a bottle of water, early in the morning,” Moore said, miming looking for a bottle. “That’s really hectic. That’s the worst.”

“It’s really hard to pour in,” she added. “It feels like a two-man job when you do it that way.”

“I feel like the hardest part is the brushing your teeth,” Shamaire agreed.

Moore also expressed concern over washing her dishes and doing laundry with the water, although officials say lead can only be transferred through ingestion. Dirty dishes were stacked neatly in a tower in the sink, and a small saucepan on the stove showed remnants of the pasta and marinara sauce they ate for dinner last night.

“It’s hard, you keep your dishes piling up because you don’t want to run too much water on it,” Moore said, “because what if it leaves a residue of the lead on it?”

She grabbed a plastic bag and put the shrink-wrap casing of the water bottles in it, clearing up the trash that the new bundle of water created.

“You can’t go green if you have to have bottles of water,” she said. When asked if it would be helpful for the city to give out large gallons of water, she paused and said it might, instead of “bust[ing] out this big case just for one [water bottle].”

“[But] other than that, it becomes really, like a lot of trash.”

Newark is distributing more than 70,000 cases of bottled water to residents serviced by the Pequannock treatment plant, which provides water to the city’s west side. The plant’s treatment failed to prevent lead from dissolving into the drinking supply, starting in 2017. While Newark distributed 39,000 filters as a makeshift solution, alarming tests questioned whether they were keeping lead levels low enough.

It’s not clear how much longer residents will have to rely on bottled water. Officials have estimated testing will take at least another week before they can reach any answers.

Moore crossed her arms and looked around at her kitchen. A curtain covered the window, blocking out most of the sunlight and making the room feel slightly cooler.

“I don’t think I could do this any longer,” she said. “I’m tired of brushing my teeth like this. I really wish they got it together.”

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