The water supply at the Jacob Riis public housing complex in the East Village has “no discernible amount of arsenic,” city officials declared Wednesday night, but they’re cautioning residents not to drink the water or use it to cook after other tests found potentially harmful bacteria.
Charles Lutvak, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Adams, said late Wednesday night that water samples retested by a separate, second vendor were “found to be negative” for arsenic, a naturally occurring element that can be highly toxic and lead to cancer and other adverse health issues. But as City Hall attempted to put one potential health crisis concern to bed, it opened another.
Nearly one week after the Adams administration first said it had detected arsenic in the water, Lutvak said a new testing vendor had screened samples “at 140 additional sites, both at the source and at the point of delivery.” However, the spokesman's statement went on to say the initial testing vendor had provided additional results belatedly, showing that water samples from the East Village NYCHA complex carried signs of Legionella, a bacteria that can cause upper respiratory illness if inhaled.
The information created some confusion for the complex's residents.
Lutvak said the Legionella results could be “inaccurate” — partly because of what’s known about how the germs spread. In his statement, Lutvak claimed “Legionella cannot be spread through drinking water," which conflicted with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though it’s rare, the germ can occasionally spread through drinking water. Swallowing mainly directs water to the stomach, but this fluid can sometimes slip into the lungs via the throat, according to the CDC.
The confusion is further propelled by the absence of Legionnaires' disease at the Jacob Riis Houses. NYCHA rooftop water tanks supply both drinking faucets and shower heads — the latter of which is the typical route for Legionella infections.
“Additionally, we are actively reviewing our Legionella surveillance data and have found no reported or confirmed cases of Legionella at Riis Houses over the last 12 months,” Lutvak said.
Sharon Stergis, a 60-year-old lifelong resident of the Jacob Riis complex who sits on the tenant association board, said it’s been a roller-coaster of emotions for residents.
“It's conflicting reports," she said. "They're telling us that it's testing negative, but please don't drink the water or cook with it. People are very afraid to even be washed with it. I took a shower this morning, I said, ‘Time for my arsenic shower.’”
Lost in the 'woods'
At a Thursday morning press conference, Adams attempted to clear up confusion, saying his administration was asking residents to continue to avoid the tap water "out of an abundance of caution."
“We continue to give water," Adams said. "We're going to do the tests to make sure before we tell residents to drink water again that comes from their tap. We want to be 100% sure, but we also want to be 100% transparent."
The back-and-forth around the water supply at the 19-building complex overlooking the East River is only adding to the chaos and confusion among the roughly 3,900 residents, who haven’t been able to drink or cook with their tap water for a week.
The arsenic water results were first reported by THE CITY.
“It's confusing. That's what it is. We are not chemists. We don't know. So we are relying on their results and we're relying on what they tell us,” Daphne Williams, president of the tenant association, told Gothamist. “We're still in the woods. We're still wondering, worrying about our children. Now, our seniors.”
“People are skeptical. They don't really believe," she added. "They don't. They lose trust."
City Hall said it would be keeping the tap water warning in place until additional test results conducted by a separate vendor come back.
“We want to fully analyze all test results before making any recommendations. Out of an abundance of caution, we are continuing to ask Riis Houses residents not to drink or cook with the water in their buildings until all test results are returned,” Lutvak said.
While city officials were trying to quell concerns over the possibility of the Legionella bacteria being present in water supply, health experts warned against residents potentially exposing themselves to the germs, which are typically found in cooling towers and water tanks.
“I would not shower in a water sample contaminated with Legionella,” said Dr. Kartik Chandran, a professor of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University. “It's just minimizing exposure and reducing exposure."
Questions and confusion persist
While testing 140 additional water samples should provide residents “some sense of comfort,” additional examination is needed before Riis residents are in the clear, Chandran said.
The language the Adams administration has used to update Riis residents also raised some alarm.
“I wonder what is meant by 'no discernible amount of arsenic,'” said Denis Nash, the director of the CUNY Institute for Implementation Science in Population Health. “Does that mean no arsenic was detected? That all results were below the limit of detection for the test? Were the original positive samples retested? If not, does that suggest there was a transient presence of elevated levels of arsenic?”
The mayor’s spokesperson did not immediately return calls or emails seeking further clarification on what “discernible” meant.
At a press conference Tuesday, Adams said tests first detected arsenic in the water on Aug. 29, five days before tenants were officially notified. Further results from a third-party vendor had confirmed that on Sept. 1, according to Lutvak.
NYCHA, the nation’s largest public housing authority with more than half a million tenants, suffers from decades of disinvestment and neglect that have led to persistent safety concerns, including mold, lead paint, and rodent infestations, among others.
Dan Goldman, the Democratic nominee for New York’s 10th Congressional District, which includes the Riis Houses, also criticized the mayor over City Hall’s handling of the situation. A federal monitor overseeing NYCHA requested that the city preserve documents regarding water testing at the Jacob Riis Houses.
“There will need to be a full accounting of what exactly happened. Either we have arsenic in the water, which is incredibly dangerous and scary, or it was some degree of a false positive, which is inexcusable,” Goldman said. “You cannot put thousands of residents through this fear and anxiety based on some false positive. If that is the case, it's unacceptable.”