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Many NYC rooftop water tanks are poorly maintained, contaminated

According to the New York Times, there are between 12,000 and 17,000 buildings in the city that provide water to occupants using rooftop water tanks. Citing a city survey, the Times also said that 60 percent of NYC building owners don’t bother to make sure the water tanks on their buildings are in basic compliance with city regulations. Some $700,000 in fines were levied against non-compliant buildings between 2010 and 2012 alone.

Officials have never traced any illnesses to contaminated water tanks but, according to the Times report, that may have been luck. Millions of New Yorkers drink water from rooftop tanks every day, and samples Times reporters took from local buildings revealed the presence of E. coli -- a microbe passed through fecal matter -- and of coliform bacteria.

The reporters took samples from the bottom of each tank, where layers of thick sediment often lurk, below the level of the pipes carrying water into the buildings. Therefore, they couldn’t unequivocally say whether the water used by residents was contaminated.

Nevertheless, an expert consulting for the Times was alarmed by E. coli being found in the samples. Since water circulates within the tanks, the Yale public-health microbiologist who focuses on bacterial contamination in drinking water contacted the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the agency responsible for oversight of rooftop water tanks. Even at less-than-dangerous levels, the fecal contamination in the water means that animals are able to get into the tanks. “Clearly, these units are not sealed to the outside,” he wrote.

City officials insist the tanks do not pose a health hazard, pointing to the fact that they’ve never traced an illness back to them. They Yale microbiologist, however, says that in a population as dense and large as that of New York City, it would be virtually impossible to do that, so lack of evidence doesn’t mean no one’s getting sick.

According to the Times, building owners weren’t required to demonstrate they were maintaining and inspecting the water tanks to anyone until recently. They are now required to provide tenants with inspection records upon request. Oversight by the city is virtually nonexistent.

For detailed information, you should read the Times article linked below. Do you think our city’s rooftop water tanks pose a public health risk? If so, is property owner negligence, lack of oversight, or a combination of factors responsible?

Source: The New York Times, “Inside City’s Water Tanks, Layers of Neglect,” Ray Rivera, Frank G. Runyeon and Russ Buettnerjan, Jan. 27, 2014

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