It’s conclusive, according to the latest tests on Saturday, Sept. 10, that there wasn’t any “discernible amount of arsenic in the water” at New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Jacob Riis Houses in lower Manhattan. The results, however, have done very little to douse the ire and suspicions of the mostly Black and brown residents. At least 35 of them have banded together to sue the city and/or the lab company for $10 million in emotional damages, said their lawyer.
After being told by the city that there was “elevated levels of arsenic” in their drinking water, residents at Riis Houses dealt with the inconvenience and fear of being poisoned for eight days.
NYCHA Jacob Riis Houses Tenant Association President Daphne Williams was visibly exhausted while handing out donated food and cases of bottled water to residents in the courtyard last Thursday. She was joined by second vice president Sharon Stergis and the rest of the tenant board. Though she greeted many familiar faces with a smile, she quickly fell back into tiredness over the days of uncertainty while the city re-ran water tests.
There were stacked boxes of pasta at the table in front of her and a conspicuous white tent set up next to them. Out on the sidewalk, all along Avenue D, were NYC water stations jerry rigged to the fire hydrants where residents occasionally carted over jugs of water to refill.
Williams said that residents weren’t able to cook or bathe properly with the two or three cases of bottled water they were given daily. Most were spending money on every meal, she said, because they were afraid of the water entirely. Many residents, who are civil servants or former employees of NYCHA, definitely did not believe that the water contaminant was contained to just the NYCHA buildings in the neighborhood either.
A distrust of city government officials was already brewing, but it readily exploded on Friday, Sept. 9. “We need to know what is happening. NYCHA should pay for the testing of tenants on the spot,” said one man testifying at the community meeting held at PS 34 on Friday night. “NYCHA and the powers that be should be fined and sanctioned for keeping this a secret. The city should reimburse the tenants for food they had to buy because they could not cook.”
People were understandably pissed off when informed by the city’s Chief Housing Officer Jessica Katz and NYCHA’s Chair and Chief Executive Officer Gregory Russ at the community meeting that the Environmental Monitoring and Technologies labs were wrong about the arsenic and had to retract their findings.
The city said that all “original water delivery points that were previously thought to test positive for arsenic have been retested and found to be negative.” They also tested 140 additional sites, both at the source and at the point of delivery.
It’s important to note that by “negative” the mayor’s office meant that the results that were elevated were now “well below the federal standard.” The federal arsenic standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency allows for 10 ppb (or 0.010 parts per million) to be in drinking water regularly. The initial (now false) test levels at Riis Houses were between 12 and 14 ppb. The city added that “belated results” (accurately) suggested a presence of Legionella bacteria.
“At this [10 ppb] level it is safe to bathe but not to cook and not to drink. This protects consumers from the effects of long-term, chronic exposure to arsenic,” said the EPA. “It is safe to bathe but not drink or cook with the water because arsenic does not readily absorb into the skin, nor does it evaporate into the air from the water.”
The news of wrong results was met with a visceral reaction of disbelief from tenants, some of whom demanded compensation. Mayor Eric Adams was not present at the community meeting to talk to riled up residents, but he and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan tweeted a video of them in an apartment drinking glasses of water from the tap.
“I know the last eight days have been unbearable for the residents of Jacob Riis Houses, but, this morning, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reviewed the final test results for contaminants and found the water to be well within EPA drinking water quality standards,” said Adams in a statement.
“We can confidently say the water at Riis Houses is and has been free of any discernible amount of arsenic since the initial tests were initiated in August and meets EPA standards. I would not ask the residents of Riis Houses to do anything I wouldn’t do, which is why I have already stopped by Riis Houses and drank the water myself,” he continued.
Despite the video demonstration, the disbelief and distrust over the water situation only grew.
“NYCHA residents deserve better. The conflicting reports of water contamination at Riis Houses raise more questions that need to be answered, leaving the residents understandably concerned and outraged,” said Speaker Adrienne Adams and Councilmembers Carlina Rivera, Alexa Avilés, Gale Brewer in a joint statement. “The Council intends to conduct oversight to ensure transparency and clarity regarding water quality and safety for all residents of NYCHA.”
By Monday, Sept. 12, Attorney Sanford Rubenstein announced that his law firm was filing a lawsuit on behalf of Rebecca Perkins and at least 35 residents at Riis Houses.
As far as the concerns about Legionella bacteria being in the water, Vasan in a presser this week confirmed that tests were positive.
“The bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease in the drinkable water, in the potable water. That is not how Legionella spreads, by ingestion of potable water. It is through aerosolized water, usually in cooling systems, ventilation systems, HVAC systems,” said Vasan. “So, this is a different water source.”
Vasan and Adams maintain that there are still some questions about the sample of positive Legionella itself. There aren’t currently any clinical investigations because there aren’t any reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease, he said.
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 by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w