A scary water situation is unfolding at New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Jacob Riis Houses, a public housing development on the Lower East Side home to 2,600 tenants. Last Friday, it was publicly announced that potentially dangerous traces of arsenic had been found in the resident’s tap water, after locals had complained about the water for weeks. 

“Since Saturday, we have conducted additional, more precise testing at both the source and where water is delivered to apartments, and everything previously thought to be positive for arsenic has, so far, now tested negative,” said a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office on Tuesday, Sept 6. “While these results are promising, the health and safety of New Yorkers are our top priorities, which is why the mayor has ordered additional testing to be conducted to be absolutely certain the water is safe to drink.” 

According to the American Cancer Society, arsenic is a natural element or organic compound that can be found in rocks and soil, water, air, and in plants and animals. However, the inorganic forms of arsenic found in industrial materials and contaminated water are more “toxic” and have been linked to cancer.

On Saturday, Sept. 3, NYCHA reportedly “flushed” the system at Riis Houses. The Mayor’s Office said that test results as of Monday, Sept. 5, did not detect arsenic from sample locations, including water tanks, that were above federal levels before. 

Riis Houses falls in Manhattan City Council District 2. Councilmember Carlina Rivera said that more than 1,700 families are without safe drinking water currently. Rivera said that her office and residents alerted NYCHA to concerns about potentially unsafe water “a few weeks ago.” There were inquiries about “cloudy” and “funny smelling” water and initial responses from NYCHA were that everything was being handled. NYCHA has denied that they knew definitively about the arsenic and has said that they had been testing for bacteria like E. coli in the water, said Rivera.

“This just really deepens the mistrust that people have and they’re at this point that they’re not sure who to believe regardless of what the results turn out to be,” she stated. 

Rivera said that agencies have to regain trust of their residents, streamline multi agency processes, and focus on transparency going forward. She added that she’s also checked with legal aid in the instance that residents need legal and financial assistance.

Ayo Harrington, co-chair of Lower East Side (LES) Ready, has lived a few blocks from Riis Houses for the last 33 years. Her organization is a part of a coalition of community-based disaster response groups throughout the district that got started after Hurricane Sandy devastated the area back in 2013. Harrington said last Friday evening, LES Ready volunteers helped hand out bottles of water and circulate information available for residents. Harrington said she definitely worries about the whole neighborhood’s possible exposure to arsenic.  

“People were frightened and angry,” said Harrington. “Angry because of the lack of immediate response to their needs. Whether it is lead, water, mold. So this is just another assault to habitable housing. But they’re also frightened about what does this mean for my kids and families.”

On Sept 2, Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams released a report, “How the Other Half Lives in Public Housing,” after inspecting housing developments in all five boroughs earlier this year. The report details the “deplorable and often dangerous conditions” at NYCHA, such as apartments overrun with mold, a pest infestation affecting residents with rodent-based diseases, elevator outages, water damaged buildings, and heat or hot water disappearing in colder months. Riis Houses opened in 1949 and especially has a history of uninhabitable conditions for tenants.

Williams released the report, and “less than 12 hours later” The City reported the discovery of the presence of arsenic at Riis Houses. Williams said that the constant water outages at developments were already a problem, but now the arsenic was not only a clear example of NYCHA’s “systemic failures” but their “inadequate” preparedness and response. 

“When we spoke to tenants on the ground, before the arsenic levels were public, they were already angry and exhausted. This news exponentially compounds that city sanctioned suffering,” said Williams via Twitter. 

By Sept. 3, the Federal Monitor team investigating NYCHA requested that all documents related to the arsenic issue be preserved and not destroyed.

A similar water crisis occurred recently in Jackson, Mississippi, where tens of thousands lost running water for a week after a major failure at a water plant, reported Mississippi Today. The city’s water tank lost pressure when years of neglected and “aged” water main lines were hit with a flood. Some pipes that are integral to the system are more than 100 years old, reported Mississippi Today.

The city’s been working around the clock distributing water to Jacksonians, its residents who are about 82% Black, and trying to fix the issue but they are still encouraging people to boil their water to be on the safe side. 

Rivera and Harrington couldn’t estimate when the water for Riis Houses would be safe again, but comprehensive testing results should be in within the week.

“We continue to receive encouraging results from water tests at Riis Houses. All original water delivery points that were previously thought to test positive for arsenic have been retested and have now been found to be negative,” said a Mayor’s Office spokesperson. 

The Mayor’s Office said that they have tested approximately 140 additional sites, both at the source and at the point of delivery. The test results for arsenic at 58 sites “so far suggest the water is safe.” But, Riis Houses residents are being asked to continue not to drink or cook with the water in their buildings until all test results are returned.

Residents should use the water stations outside the buildings when possible, said the Mayor’s Office, and bottled water will continue to be handed out. As of Monday, Sept. 5, 97 pallets (each pallet has 84 cases) of water had been distributed.

“We want to fully analyze all test results before any recommendations are made. In the meantime, we are continuing to provide clean water for anyone who needs it,” said a Mayor’s Office spokesperson. 

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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  1. It’s another thing to follow up with Your Word Mr.Adams power is in the tongue. Still waiting for affordable housing for SENIORS

  2. Water is too important for living thing and human life to let its safety subjected to big business or political interest; thus, every community should have many voluntary anonymous hydrologists that check the water quality on a daily basis.

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