In September 2018 three residents of the St. Nicholas Houses, a public housing development in central Harlem, came down with Legionnaires’ disease, a pneumonia-like illness that can prove fatal to the elderly and individuals with compromised immune systems.
The city health department found Legionella, the bacteria that causes the disease, in the tap water at St. Nicholas and, because the bacteria is transmitted via water mist, advised tenants to take baths, not showers, and run their taps slowly to avoid creating mist.
Soon after NYCHA hired a contractor, LiquiTech, and installed a new system that relies on copper and silver ions to keep water tanks free of Legionella. Liquitech was tasked with regularly testing the levels of copper and silver ions in the tap water at St. Nicholas and 10 other developments red-flagged by city health inspectors as vulnerable to a Legionella outbreak.
Four years later, the integrity of all of that testing is now in doubt.
Last week for the first time, NYCHA revealed that LiquiTech has, since the start of its work in 2019, relied on a lab that was at the heart of the debacle last month over alleged arsenic in the water at the Riis Houses in Manhattan’s East Village.
In August the lab, Environmental Management & Technology (EMT), reported that its tests showed elevated levels of arsenic in the water at Riis. Eight days later, EMT suddenly reversed itself, retracting its findings and declaring that there was no arsenic at all.
At first NYCHA claimed EMT had only been used that one time, at Riis. At a Sept. 23 City Council hearing, NYCHA Chief Operating Officer Eva Trimble testified to that effect under oath.
Then last week THE CITY revealed that this was not true and that LiquiTech had, in fact, relied on EMT for years — starting with the contaminated water tank at St. Nicholas.
Due to the questions about the subcontractor’s reliability, NYCHA is now going back and retesting 33 buildings at St. Nicholas and the 10 other developments where LiquiTech has been using EMT lab results to certify that the copper-silver ionization systems at those sites were working properly.
NYCHA promised that neither LiquiTech nor EMT will be involved in the retesting, which will instead be handled by the Liro Group and analyzed by Long Island Analytical Laboratories, Inc., a New York State-certified lab. EMT is certified in several Midwest states but not in New York.
At St. Nicholas last week, tenant Penny Harden, 69, recalled the 2018 outbreak vividly, even naming the “copper silver ion system” NYCHA installed there in response. The development opened in 1954 and Harden has been living there since 1979. That outbreak still stands out as a deeply troubling incident for her.
At the time, the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) tested the tap water at St. Nicholas and found Legionella in six of 13 samples. Harden told THE CITY she no longer drinks water from her kitchen sink — only from her bathroom faucet.
“How old is this development? Sixty-something years old? The water tastes like it’s 60-something years old in the kitchen,” she said, claiming it has a foul smell and metallic taste.
Six months ago a worker — she didn’t get his name — took four samples from her kitchen and bathroom taps. NYCHA says LiquiTech took those samples at St. Nicholas and relied on EMT to get results.
“They should take care of their own problems and not contract all the work out because who knows the system like the people who own it,” Harden said.
Lynette Knight, who has lived at St. Nicholas for 31 of her 47 years, also had her tap water tested six months ago, and was told she would be contacted if the results indicated any type of contamination.
“I remember them testing it and then it was hush-hush after that,” she said. “I hope everything turns out all right.”
NYCHA said the two St. Nicholas buildings with water tanks that service the entire development have not recently “been the subject of a Legionella building evaluation under DOHMH’s purview.”
‘I Found Out Two Seconds Ago’
Among the other 10 developments NYCHA is retesting are Fort Independence Houses in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of The Bronx, where two residents contracted Legionnaires’ Disease in 2018, around the same time as the St. Nicholas outbreak.
NYCHA has promised to do significant outreach to tenants at the 11 developments, but last week, several Fort Independence residents told THE CITY they were unaware that their water was again being tested, or that the same laboratory used at Jacob Riis Houses had been monitoring their water over the last three years.
“That’s something very important that people are supposed to know and they’re quiet,” said 23-year resident Jorge Davila, who spoke in Spanish as he relaxed on the benches in front of the apartment complex with his wife. “They’re supposed to put up signs and let [people] know.”
While speaking with THE CITY, Davila began calling over his fellow tenants as they walked by, to alert them about the retesting. His efforts soon drew the attention of a NYCHA staff member, who sought clarity on the information residents had started to spread.
The staff member, who mistook a reporter from THE CITY as being from a city agency, said the building’s management office didn’t know about anything. When asked if that meant the office wasn’t aware of the testing, the staff member said management wasn’t there to answer questions.
“I found out two seconds ago when [Davila] just told me,” 14-year resident Jessica Sosa, who was with her 10-year-old daughter. “They’re usually good with it because when they did testing on the water before, there was notices in the hallway.”
Sosa said that testing happened a few years ago after multiple residents tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease there. She was concerned about her water looking a little “foggy” after having to use a temporary sink, but said the water cleared up once it was replaced with a normal sink.
None of the residents THE CITY spoke with had any recent issues with their water, for drinking or other uses.