City pronounces Jacob Riis Houses water safe to drink as mayor, health commissioner drink to end of arsenic scare

Jacob Riis Houses water safe to drink as arsenic scare ends
“Nothing’s better than New York City water,” Mayor Eric Adams said before he and Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan gulped down glasses from the tap at the Jacob Riis Houses on Sept. 10, 2022, marking the end of a week-long arsenic scare.
Screenshot via Twitter/@Fabien_Levy

After a week-long arsenic contamination scare brought upon by apparently faulty test results, the water inside the Lower East Side’s Jacob Riis Houses is again safe to drink, Mayor Eric Adams pronounced Saturday.

To demonstrate that safety, both the mayor and city Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan helped themselves on Sept. 10 to glasses full of cold H2O straight from a kitchen tap in one of the Riis Houses apartments. 

“Nothing’s better than New York City water,” hizzoner said before he and Vasan gulped down the liquid, the spectacle shown in a video posted to Adams’ press secretary Fabien Levy’s Twitter account . Afterward, the mayor said “Ah” in apparent refreshment. 

“I really wanted to show with our Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Dr. Vasan and the rest of the team, as we tell the Riis Houses residents that it’s okay to drink the water,” Adams said, while also thanking the city agencies that provided bottled water to Riis Houses residents over the past week, as the city investigated suspected arsenic contamination in the NYCHA complex’s water system.

It turned out that the week-long arsenic scare was just that, as the Adams administration reported Friday that there was not only no arsenic in the water system, but that the firm responsible for testing water samples on the site had botched the results.

Levy released a lengthy statement late Friday afternoon explaining that Environmental Monitoring and Technologies – whose test results last week reported the presence of arsenic in the housing complex’s water – issued a “full retraction” of the results and released revised results. The lab further admitted it had introduced arsenic into the testing samples on its own, Levy added.

A second firm was brought in by the city to test the original samples as well as others taken from the Riis Houses water system in the week that followed. All tested negative for arsenic, Levy noted.

Still, the administration waited until Saturday morning before giving the all-clear to Riis Houses residents to again use the tap as they awaited test results for other contaminants, which apparently came back negative as well.

The false positives, as publicly revealed in a Sept. 2 report on The City news site, sparked great alarm among the more than 2,700 Riis Houses residents who were then left no choice but to drink and cook with bottled water for a week while the city investigated the suspected contamination. As the crisis wore on, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams among others alleged the city and NYCHA, with operates the Riis Houses, had not been forthcoming not only with the initial false positive results, but also in keeping residents in the loop with information related to the crisis.

After the Adams’ administration cleared the air about the false positive Friday, Williams charged that “NYCHA has again failed a test of its management.”

“Tenants who have lived with fear for the last week, and cloudy water weeks before that, need full answers and accountability. From the first complaint of water issues to today’s results, NYCHA has mismanaged this moment as the same kind of issues we highlighted in our recent report continue from crisis to crisis,” Williams said. “NYCHA does need funding, but its management failures in this incident and in countless before it have led to a bankruptcy of tenant trust. Rebuilding that trust is a long process that relies on truly listening to and working directly with tenants. NYCHA must immediately start proving its commitment to repairing both its buildings and the trust of the tenants paying to live there.”

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams along with City Council Members Alexa Aviles, Carlina Rivera and Gale Brewer also announced Saturday that they would seek an investigation into the fiasco. 

“New York City Housing Authority (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,” the lawmakers said 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.”

For now, the mayor said, the Riis Houses residents have their water back, and shouldn’t be afraid to enjoy it.

“I’m drinking it,” Mayor Adams said Saturday. “The water is safe to drink.”

With reporting by Ethan Stark-Miller