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NYCHA Found Arsenic in the Water Two Weeks Ago — Tenants Only Found Out Friday Night

Top managers were informed of tests showing traces of the heavy metal two weeks ago — but it wasn’t until THE CITY asked that the mayor abruptly showed up to distribute bottled water.

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The Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, Sept. 7, 2020.

John Penney/Shutterstock

The city’s public housing authority discovered traces of arsenic in the tap water at one of its biggest developments in Manhattan, the Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, THE CITY has learned.

Late Friday, NYCHA began distributing bottled water at the sprawling complex that houses 2,600 tenants and opened in 1949. It’s named after the iconic 19th-century muckraker who authored “How the Other Half Lives,” an expose of squalid housing conditions endured by thousands of New York’s immigrants. 

Top NYCHA managers first learned of test results that indicated traces of arsenic were present in the water at the development about two weeks ago, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

Riis tenant Malina Barbosa told THE CITY on Friday that she had not been informed of the problem, although she noted that recently, “We don’t drink their water. It kind of smells. When they turn it off and it comes back on, it’s brown.” 

Hours after THE CITY reached out, City Hall announced at 9:56 p.m. that Mayor Eric Adams was going to distribute water bottles at Jacob Riis Houses at 10:15 p.m. — and that he would not be taking press questions. 

At about 10:30 on Friday evening, a NYCHA spokesperson Barbara Brancaccio told THE CITY that the water at Riis had indeed previously tested positive for arsenic, but claimed that NYCHA had not confirmed that result until Friday.

In a statement sent to THE CITY at 11:16 p.m., a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said that “Preliminary results received today from retesting showed arsenic levels higher than the federal standard for drinking water, and while there is no evidence linking it to the cloudy water, the city has taken immediate action, including providing support and drinking water to every household at Riis while we conduct additional water testing.”

NYCHA has been under the oversight of a federal monitor since then Mayor Bill de Blasio settled a 2016 lawsuit filed by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney charged the authority’s management with deliberately covering up unhealthy and unsafe conditions in public housing, including lead-paint exposure to children and mold infestations afflicting residents with asthma.

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