How Safe is Your Water? Questions Persist About the City's Water Quality

How Safe is Your Water?

It comes roaring down from the Catskill Mountains, from the pristine hills of Delaware County and from the open spaces of

Westchester. As it barrels its way through enormous tunnels over 100 miles long, into a maze of pipelines a century old and out through the faucet in your kitchen, New York City's drinking water has long been taken for granted. Free until very recently, and considered to be among the best in the country, our waterand drinking water throughout the nationhas lately come under increasing scrutiny as outbreaks of bacteria have affected people in several major U.S. cities. But before you run out and have a Poland Spring dispenser placed in your living room, consider the fact that there are a number of points at which your building's water can be filtered, purified and otherwise protected from elements that can cause, or increase the likelihood of contamination.

New Yorkers consume approxM-imately 1.4 billion gallons of water each day from the vast system of upstate reservoirs that serves our city. Like any body of water, our reservoirs are home to a wide variety of fish, fowl and other animals, which live in and around these fresh-water lakes. New York City is the only major U.S. city that does not filter its water. Instead, More than 1200 tests are conducted on the water coming into the city every day, explains David Golub of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The city has one of the most rigorous testing programs for parasites and bacteria, he says, resulting in the fact that New York City's water is still considered to be the premium drinking water in the nation.

In addition to the testing procedures, the city adds chlorine to its water to kill off organisms that could cause disease or illness. According to Golub, the city maintains a residual chlorine level of .3 parts per billion, way below the safe levels set by the federal Department of Environmental Protection.

Antiquated Pipelines

The quality of potable water relies on the condition of the piping systems transporting it, says Thomas Ronayne, director of operations for AMR Mechanical, a division of the Rosenwach Group which installs and maintains building plumbing, water filtration and mechanical systems. New York's pipes were built at the turn of the century, he says. The city has been unable to maintain or inspect these pipes because some of the valves for them have never been operated. They're afraid if they shut them off so they can get in there and clean, they won't be able to turn them back on again.

David Golub confirms that the city's water tunnels were built sometime during the 1800s. But he adds, Water is a naturally corrosive agent. The natural action of the water moving through the pipes keeps the water virtually clean of debris.

Currently there are two tunnels servicing the metropolitan area, and a third tunnel is under construction to service Brooklyn and Queens. It is expected to be operational in the next century at an estimated cost of $4 to $5 billion dollars. When it is running, the other two will be shut down and cleaned, says Golub.

Reports of Impurities

In spite of all the precautions taken to test and purify our drinking water, a recent report by the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit environmental research organization based in Washington, ffb DC, claims that of all the large water systems in the country (serving over 10,000 people), The New York city acqueduct system had the most reported violations and exceedances of drinking water standards in 1993 and 1994. The violations included contamination of source water by microbial organisms, such as E. coli bacteria, which can cause diarrhea, severe cramps, headaches and fatigue.

Bonnie Bellow of the DEP concedes that Ninety percent of source reservoirs, including the Catskill-Delaware system, have cryptosporidium present on the surface water. Cryptosporidium is a spore formed from animal fecal matter that has been connected to an outbreak in Milwaukee two years ago which resulted in 400,000 people becoming sick. The spore is most dangerous to the elderly, the very young or anyone with a weakened immune system. However, Bellow points out that New York City's water is the most scrutinized by state health authorities because of its size and the population it serves.

Your Direct Water Source:

The Roof Tank

You may not realize it, but if you live in a high-rise apartment building, the water you drink does not come directly from the city's pipes to your tap. Water comes into the building and is pumped to a holding tank on the roof, where it is then drawn down by gravity every time a tap is turned on or a toilet is flushed. Water impurities can originate in the tanks as well as anywhere else along the water's route to your faucet. Therefore, it is imperative that buildings be conscientious about maintaining the cleanliness of their water tanks.

Over time you have a build-up of unsanitary conditions, explains Scott Hochhauser, vice president of Isseks Brothers Tank Company, which manufactures, installs and maintains roof tanks. If the pipes inside the tank are not cleaned properly, they can deteriorate and eat away at the quality of the tank itself. By cleaning the pipes, taking the sludge out that builds up, boards are prolonging the life of the tank.

New York City Building Code requires that wood and metal water tanks be drained and cleaned at least once a year. Richard Silver, president of American Pipe & Tank, adds, It is especially important to keep tanks clean in the summer months. These tanks get hot and moist, and become perfect breeding grounds for algae, which is a food source for the bacteria Legionella. In small parts the bacteria is not harmful, but in larger parts it can seriously affect an elderly person or someone with a lesser immune system.

In order to clean the roof tank, it must first be drained, a job that can be done by the building superintendent. Next, the interior of the tank is swept clean by professional tank cleaners. The walls and pipes inside are scrubbed with a light chlorine solution that destroys bacteria, and the tank is then filled up and drained twice to rinse it out thoroughly. The cost of such a cleaning ranges from about $600 to about $800. Service contracts are available at costs varying from company to company. As part of a contract, many companies now have a computerized system which monitors the tank for signs that it needs cleaning. Ronayne recommends that, in addition to the annual cleaning, supers should do daily tank inspections by looking into the tank with a flashlight.

Water Filtration Systems

If you are not satisfied with the purity of the water you drink, there is a variety of filtration systems that can be installed in your building's basement or in your own apartment. Building-wide filtration systems, also known as point of entry filters, are installed just after the water meter in the basement, says Ronald J. Ciccolini, president of Aqua East, a water purification company. The filters rely on four levels of sand, carbon and garnet to remove all metals and solids form the water.

Our filters have a 98 percent particle removal rate, says Ciccolini. They can take out anything that might make the water unpleasant to drink.

Danial Hochroth of Sanitary Water Filtration, a firm that sells both point of entry and po ffb int of use filters, says, The goal for our filters is to remove dirt, reduce the number of harmful organisms and get the lead out of the water. Sanitary's filters use active carbon and a chemical compound EBA 2000 to remove impurities like lead and chlorine. A building-wide filtration system to remove dirt, rust and sediment will cost around $7,000 to $8,000 for an average 60-unit building, says Hochroth.

Most point of use filters are installed under the kitchen sink, where most drinking water is brought into the apartment. These filters treat only the water that comes out of that one faucet, and cost around $360 per unit, says Hochroth.

There are also filters that clean the water after it has come through the tap, like the new Pur Plus Filter Cartridge which attaches to the faucet and uses a micro filter and carbon block to capture microorganisms, like cryptosporidium. This filter can be purchased at pharmacies and department stores. It can filter 200 gallons of water, which means it lasts for two and a half to three months, says John Velure, president of Pur Plus. When the filter has reached capacity, it shuts off and a replacement cartridge can be inserted. The filter itself costs about $60 and replacement cartridges are about $20.


There are many licensed labs that will test your water for a variety of impurities. One such company is Waters Filter and Cooler, a company that sells point of use filters and water coolers. Run by Alan Waters, the company mails out kits to residents who can take samples from faucets all over the apartment. The samples are mailed by the resident to a New Hampshire facility, the Division of National Testing Laboratories. They're one of the largest labs geared toward water testing, Waters says. The reports are sent back two weeks later, explaining if there's a quality problem and how to correct it. Kits run around $100, including the postage.

Everyone wants assurances that the water they drink is safe. By its very nature as a natural resource, water is subject to a myriad of contaminants, from bird droppings to minerals in the earth. While drinking bottled water is an alternative, Americans remain very lucky in the fact that most of our water is clean and pure. By implementing in-house policies in your building, including regular water tank cleaning, you can help preserve the quality of your drinking water. And if residents want to go one step further, today's filtration systems, whether building-wide or counter-top, can remove any harmful contaminants from your drinking water on a continual basis.

Mr. Serken is Associate Editor of The New York Cooperator.

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