New York's Rooftop Water Tanks Hide Unhealthy Conditions

A New York Times examination of the conditions of the city’s ubiquitous water tanks reveals unhealthy levels of E. coli and coliform—bellwethers for many varieties of disease-causing microorganisms.
January 28, 2014, 6am PST | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Millions of residents in New York City rely on rooftop tanks to store and disburse water through the city’s high-rises. Surprisingly for such a high visibility figure of the cityscape, however, the water tanks attract very little attention from health inspectors or other regulators, according to the reportage of Ray Rivera, Frank G Runyeon, and Russ Buettner.

To reveal the lurking health risks presented by the city’s water towers, the New York Times took samples from water towers at 12 buildings in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. The samples “found E. coli in five tanks, and coliform in those tanks and three more.”

The city insists that the city’s water storage systems are safe: “City health officials insist that the tanks are safe, and that the laws governing them are adequate,” and “health officials say no cases have ever been traced back to a water tank.”

“The thousands of tanks that dot the skyline are part of a water system that originates at 19 protected lakes and reservoirs in upstate New York…But the vast system of safeguards protecting the water supply virtually ends at the curb. From that point on, it is up to building owners to ensure that their tanks are cleaned, inspected and tested for bacteria annually, as required by the city’s building and health codes.”

However, the city does very little to ensure that building owners are protecting the health of those drinking the water held in their tanks. “The city’s own surveys suggest that nearly 60 percent of the owners do not comply…Building owners are not required to submit proof to the city that cleanings and inspections have been conducted, as they do for elevator and boiler inspections. Until recently, they did not have to provide evidence of the inspections to their tenants.”

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Published on Monday, January 27, 2014 in New York Times
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