Positive Arsenic Test in Public Housing Confirmed False But Residents Remain Wary

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The residents of the Jacob Riis Housing complex in the East Village were informed on Friday, September 10th that an initial test which indicated the presence of arsenic at levels above EPA safety standards are false and that the tap water is safe to consume. 

The saga started in early August when Riis Houses residents reported having cloudy tap water. As a result, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) ordered tests on the water. On August 29th, NYCHA received the test results which indicated the presence of arsenic at unsafe levels. Upon receiving these results, NYCHA ordered a resampling, the results of which were received on September 1st and was consistent with the results. Residents were informed the next day by NYCHA not to drink their tap water.

Under the guidance of the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, NYCHA began to distribute bottled water on site and launched a full investigation into the water quality of the Jacob Riis houses. As part of this investigation, NYCHA looked into the building’s water source, the points of entry and exit for all of the building’s water, and the individual faucets where the water comes out from. 

NYCHA then took samples from 140 sites within the Jacob Riis housing complex and sent them over to LiRo Group, a laboratory part of the New York State Environmental Laboratory Approval Program for arsenic testing. The lab found that all 140 test sites had arsenic levels that were either undetectable or well below the state and federal arsenic maximums. This included the samples from the six sites which were previously believed to contain arsenic. 

This raises the question of how the initial tests detected the presence of arsenic, to begin with. Environmental Monitoring and Technologies, the firm that performed the initial positive tests, conducted an internal investigation on the methods it used to get the original test results. The results of this investigation ultimately resulted in them dismissing their original test results, deeming the methods to be faulty. Namely, a test for silver that they conducted introduced arsenic into the sample which wasn’t corrected for.

In response to the chaos caused by the initial false results mayor Eric Adams said that, “The city intends to pursue all available legal options on behalf of the residents of Riis Houses and will look for how we can reimburse residents for costs incurred over the last week.”

Although the water is safe to drink, residents remain wary. Mistrust in NYCHA has long predated even this incident. In 2016, NYCHA was appointed a federal monitor after it was discovered that NYCHA management had been covering up dangerous and harmful living conditions for years. The saga of the arsenic scare has left residents in a state of confusion, not knowing what to believe. In response, some residents have filed a $10 million lawsuit against NYCHA. According to Sanford Rubenstein, the attorney representing the tenants, “Victims have a right to damages even if they’re not sick but fear getting sick in this situation.”

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