Initial Tests Showed Arsenic in Water at N.Y.C. Housing Complex

The tap water at a New York City Housing Authority complex in the East Village was initially found to contain arsenic at levels higher than the federal drinking water standard, but subsequent testing has called the earlier results into question, city officials said Sunday.

Testing at a private lab found elevated arsenic levels in basement pipes in two buildings at the public housing complex. Both those buildings have pumps that carry the water to large rooftop tanks that feed numerous other residential buildings across the housing complex, said Daniel Greene, a senior vice president with the city housing authority.

Mr. Greene said in an interview that more testing by the private laboratory last week of samples taken from kitchen faucets in three apartments also had elevated arsenic levels.

But Mr. Greene said that further testing by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, at the point at which the water enters one of the buildings, indicated no arsenic. That raised the possibility, he said, that the earlier positive results were mistaken.

“That refutes basically the sample that was taken by the private lab that we had utilized,” he said, though he noted that test results from other locations in the housing complex were still pending.

The housing authority began testing the water at the Jacob Riis Houses in early August after receiving reports of “cloudy” water, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Adams said in an email on Saturday.

The city received preliminary test results on Friday and advised residents not to drink or cook with tap water, according to a spokesman for the mayor. Mr. Adams visited the housing complex on Friday night, when the city began distributing bottled water to residents, as first reported by the online news organization The City.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we are advising residents not to drink or cook with the water until we have more conclusive information,” the spokesman said, adding that every household would be provided drinking water while additional tests were conducted. He said there was no evidence linking the cloudy water to arsenic.

There are currently 1,727 households, which consist of 3,772 residents, living in the 19 red brick residential buildings that make up the housing complex, according to the city.

The city’s Department of Environmental Protection has found no arsenic contamination in the water in the surrounding neighborhood, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine said on Twitter. Another spokesman for Mr. Adams, Fabien Levy, said on Twitter that the concern was limited to the Riis complex.

It is not unusual for arsenic to be found in drinking water at low levels, and it can enter the water supply from natural deposits or from industrial and agricultural sources. It was not clear how the water at the Riis houses might have become contaminated. The city said the level found in the water was “slightly” above the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s standard of 10 parts per billion. Mr. Greene said that the private laboratory initially found arsenic levels of between 12 and 14 parts per billion.

Large doses of arsenic can cause symptoms ranging from nausea, vomiting and diarrhea to dehydration and shock, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic is associated with medical conditions like skin disorders, an increased risk for diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as several types of cancer.

After the initial complaints from residents, the housing authority had the source of the tap water tested by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. At the same time, a private contractor tested the water at the taps, said Barbara Brancaccio, a housing authority spokeswoman.

The department’s test, which specifically checked for bacteria, returned results showing that the water was safe for consumption, she said. But the private vendor, which tested for a broader set of contaminants, returned initial results at the beginning of last week that indicated the possibility of elevated metal levels in the water.

The private vendor then performed an additional test over the course of the week and on Thursday returned with a report that showed elevated levels of arsenic in the water, Ms. Brancaccio said.

In the last day, Mr. Greene, the housing authority official, said additional samples were taken from some 94 apartments, and by Monday the housing authority would know more.

“Then we can have a really serious conversation about what type of issue we’re facing here,” said Mr. Greene, who oversees efforts to address hazards such as mold, asbestos and lead at the housing authority.

Responding to the possibility that tap water at the complex might contain arsenic, a federal monitor appointed to oversee reforms at the housing authority asked the agency on Saturday to preserve all documents related to arsenic.

While more water testing continues, residents are being asked to help flush out the system in case the contamination is in the building’s pipes, Ms. Brancaccio said. Three floors at a time, residents are turning on their faucets and letting the water run for three hours, she said.

Jumaane D. Williams, the city’s public advocate, said in a statement on Saturday that the news followed the unveiling of a report from his office at Jacob Riis Houses on Friday that called conditions in the city’s public housing “unsafe and unacceptable.”

“When we spoke to the tenants on the ground, before the arsenic levels were public, they were already angry and exhausted,” he said in a statement. “This news exponentially compounds that suffering.”

Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, whose district includes Riis, said on Twitter on Saturday that she was on site and communicating with residents to make sure they were receiving updates and drinkable water.

The public housing complex is named for Jacob Riis, a turn-of-the-century journalist who documented the difficult lives of New York City’s poorest residents.

On Saturday evening outside the Riis buildings, some people filled plastic gallon jugs with water from an open hydrant. Maria Rosa got her supply at a housing authority pickup spot at Avenue D and 10th Street: Two cases of bottled water, for herself and for a neighbor, that she wheeled back to her apartment in a grocery cart.

Ms. Rosa, 70, said the news of tainted water came as “a shock.” She has lived in the Riis apartments all her life — “born and raised,” she said — and said nothing like this had ever happened. But she acknowledged hearing neighbors complain about what has been coming out of their taps in recent weeks.

“Some people say it looked yellow. Some people say it looked cloudy. Some people said it’s dirty.” Ms. Rosa said. “I haven’t seen that.”

But Lydia Rosado, another resident, said she has had problems with the water.

“I noticed the water was turning yellow, and I told everybody on the benches,” Ms. Rosado said.

Shemell Hawker said the weekend water scare was just the latest difficulty for her and her four children, all 12 or younger, since the housing authority relocated them into the Riis houses from Brooklyn. Ms. Hawker, 31, cited half-finished renovations, asbestos removal and cloudy tap water before the water alert.

“We came here in January,” Ms. Hawker, 31, said. “We have not been stable.”

Judy Wade said the bottled water provided by the city was gone by the time she arrived at the pickup point on Avenue D. She was told to come back on Sunday.

“They got a lot of seniors in the building who can’t carry water,” Ms. Wade, 68, said. “And they’re not advertising and letting people know what to do to deliver it. Because I had to call to find out.”

“It’s hard for me,” Ms. Wade added, pointing to her knees.

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