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NYC’s wooden water tanks plagued by ‘widespread neglect’: report

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The wooden structures, an iconic city symbol, are a breeding ground for gross things with little to no oversight

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What’s lurking in the myriad water tanks atop New York City buildings? According to a new report in City & State, a lot of things you don’t want in your drinking water—think cockroach carcasses, pigeons, a “squirrel martini,” and even people who occasionally make a home out of the wooden structures.

And yet, according to the report, there’s “widespread neglect” among building owners, who are required—in theory, anyway—to inspect, clean, and report any issues with the tanks atop their buildings. Wooden water tanks have become an iconic symbol of New York City life, but they also have the potential to bring bacteria, animal waste, and other effluvia into New Yorkers’ homes.

To give a sense of how widespread the problem is, City & State mapped approximately 13,000 water tank inspection reports, recorded with the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (which has oversight over the structures). The picture the map paints is pretty bleak: Many of the points show that no inspection has taken place in the past year (inspections must be recorded by January 15 to count for the preceding year).

The map also has different overlays that allow you to see what types of hazards may have been uncovered during inspections—insects, “biological growth,” and the presence of E.coli among them—and in many cases, there’s no data at all, indicating that an inspection was never recorded.

Even if a building owner does report an inspection has occurred, it doesn’t necessarily mean the data they provide is correct; as City & State notes, owners self-report, and they often “provide suspiciously spotless descriptions on annual inspection reports,” indicating that they were inspected after tanks had already been cleaned. (And “even well-maintained water tanks accumulate layers of muck and bacterial slime,” per the report.)

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene countered that water tanks “pose very little risk” to New Yorkers’ health, and stated that “[t]here is no evidence that the water from water tanks raises any public health concern, and there has never been a sickness or outbreak traced back to a water tank.” (Recent outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in the city, for example, have been traced to cooling tanks atop buildings.)

But City & State consulted the EPA, which took a different stance: “It sounds like a system that has got lots and lots of flaws to it and potential for public health impact,” a former EPA drinking water committee chairman told the publication. And a current EPA toxicologist, who asked not to be named, said “[u]sing a wooden structure on top of a building is asking for a vulnerable situation.”

Legislation passed by the City Council last year will, in theory, require owners to be more rigorous in their reporting, and compel DOHMH to make this data available publicly. But you may still want to invest in a heavy-duty water filter, just in case.