Two days earlier than Josefa Bonet died on Oct. 1, she requested her physician for an uncommon take a look at, to see if she had arsenic in her blood.
Bonet was residing at Jacob Riis Homes in Manhattan’s Decrease East Aspect. Only a month earlier, the New York Metropolis Housing Authority (NYCHA) revealed that lab tests had found arsenic in the water at her improvement — solely to reverse course and claim there was no arsenic.
Her household, mourning Bonet’s dying, thought they’d put the entire arsenic debacle behind them. Then got here the letter from Bonet’s doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr. Joshua Rein.
Rein revealed that Bonet, 74, had been recognized with kidney illness. Her survivors have been shocked to learn what got here subsequent: The exams revealed a degree of arsenic in her urine of 30 micrograms per liter (mcg/l) — 4 instances the higher restrict of regular.
“When this letter came to me, I was shocked,” Bonet’s son, Manny Soto, 54, instructed THE CITY. “Arsenic, maybe it didn’t kill her — but it may have played a part. You’re 74 years old. The arsenic makes it worse. It doesn’t help.”
That, in actual fact, was additionally the opinion of Rein, who wrote to town and state well being commissioners spelling out his considerations in regards to the confluence of the arsenic take a look at outcomes at Riis Homes and Bonet’s take a look at outcomes.
In his Oct. 19 letter to state Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett and metropolis Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan, Rein famous that whereas Bonet’s arsenic degree had not reached the “overt toxicity” degree of fifty mcg/L that triggers a state notification, it was nonetheless effectively above the norm.
“This value is abnormal and chronic low-grade toxicity cannot be excluded,” Rein wrote. “She was admitted to the hospital on Sept. 29th and passed away Oct. 1. It is possible that arsenic may have played a role in her death.”
What got here subsequent gave Bonet’s household a second shock.
Rein provided to supply each of the highest well being officers with Bonet’s medical data and her household’s contact data. However neither Bassett nor Vasan requested the data or reached out to Soto or any of his sisters.
“Nobody is interested,” Soto mentioned. “I don’t know. It’s unreal. We’re still in shock. Holidays are here. We’re still in shock. No doors are opening for me and my sisters.”
In his letter, Rein recommended to the 2 high-level authorities well being officers that they use the assets at their command to increase testing of residents at Riis Homes and different public housing developments, noting that routine testing for arsenic shouldn’t be typically carried out.
“Since 24-hour urine collections to evaluate arsenic levels are rarely done, the prevalence of chronic low-level arsenic toxicity is likely underestimated,” Rein wrote. “Out of concern for the well-being of everyone who lives in that housing complex and potentially other housing complexes, I implore both of you to utilize the power of your respective Departments to investigate this public health problem.”
Bassett didn’t reply in any respect. In accordance with well being division spokesperson Cadence Acquaviva, the commissioner relied on town to deal with this difficulty as a result of they have been “the lead agency with oversight and medical expertise” on the Riis arsenic state of affairs.
Vasan did reply, however not for almost one other month. When he answered, on Nov. 10, town well being commissioner dismissed Rein’s considerations out of hand, in accordance with the letter obtained by THE CITY.
In his letter, Vasan recounted the occasions that result in the arsenic scare at Riis, which unfolded on the eve of Labor Day weekend and continued for per week.
In August, NYCHA administration had been attempting to determine what was triggering a wave of tenant complaints about cloudy, smelly water. It ordered a contractor to check the water in one of many improvement’s 17 buildings, the place lots of the complaints have been concentrated.
An Aug. 26 take a look at in a single condominium recorded a excessive degree of arsenic, so NYCHA ordered extra exams. Over the subsequent eight days, NYCHA managers discovered that six extra random exams in two buildings additionally detected elevated arsenic ranges within the water.
On Friday, Sept. 2, on the cusp of Labor Day weekend, NYCHA confirmed to THE CITY the take a look at outcomes after which notified residents and the general public about what the take a look at outcomes confirmed. Metropolis well being officers suggested Riis residents to not drink or prepare dinner with the water till extra exams might be carried out.
Eight days later, on Sept. 9, NYCHA out of the blue introduced that the initial results were wrong and that there was no arsenic within the water. The abrupt turnaround enraged tenants and prompted a probe by town Division of Investigation and the federal monitor who oversees NYCHA. That investigation remains to be underway.
In his response to Rein’s Oct. 19 letter, Vasan dismissed the physician’s request for broader testing of residents.
“Because the original report of arsenic elevation was a lab error, longstanding, robust testing of NYC drinking water shows it is not considered a source of arsenic exposure and that additional testing at Riis Houses confirms that arsenic in water is not a concern,” the commissioner wrote, “we do not think that further water testing for arsenic is warranted for Jacob Riis Houses or other buildings.”
Concerning Rein’s considerations in regards to the supply of an elevated degree of arsenic in Bonet’s urine, Vasan theorized that it was brought on by her weight loss program.
The commissioner famous that the state tracks sufferers who register elevated arsenic ranges in a “heavy metal registry” that additionally tracks lead, mercury and cadmium, and that town Division of Health & Psychological Hygiene “interviews NYC residents with very high arsenic levels.”
“We can report that it is not unusual to find people who have recently eaten foods that can be higher in arsenic such as rice, shellfish, seaweed, fish and fruit juices, have elevated total urine arsenic levels,” Vasan wrote.
However DOHMH seems to interview solely a fraction of the New York Metropolis residents whose elevated arsenic ranges are recorded by the state heavy metallic registry, THE CITY discovered.
Between 2016 and 2020, there have been 382 “unique adults” who registered arsenic ranges above 50 mcg/L in New York Metropolis. That’s a mean of 76 per 12 months. DOHMH didn’t start this interview protocol till 2020, and talked to solely eight people with elevated arsenic ranges in 2020, paused this system in 2021 because of the pandemic, after which spoke with 5 in 2022 when the interviews resumed.
Metropolis well being division spokesperson Patrick Gallahue mentioned the division “attempts to contact individuals in the top 75th percentile to identify potential product-related sources of arsenic. Individuals are asked about potential sources of arsenic, such as consumption of rice, fish, and seaweed.”
Metropolis Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), whose district consists of Riis Homes, discovered of Rein’s letter and requested a duplicate of Vasan’s response from the well being division. Rivera instructed THE CITY she was extraordinarily sad about Vasan’s determination to blow off Rein’s request for extra testing — a request she and different elected officers had been making for the reason that arsenic scandal erupted in early September.
“I just felt there was not enough concern there. They did not commit to further action,” she mentioned. “This is the first time I saw something like that where there is medical documentation and a doctor from a local hospital is saying what they should be doing. The response from the Department of Health makes me question whether they’ve received other cases. To me the response was unacceptable.”
Bonet is remembered fondly by her former coworkers on the senior heart in NYCHA’s Wald Homes, a improvement just a few blocks south of Riis. For years she labored as a counselor on the heart and was well-known to the neighborhood there.
The workers on the heart created a memorial show that includes photograph portraits of Bonet smiling and lively, with a tribute written in each Spanish and English:
“Never Forgotten. Always Loved and Missed. May the Angels guide you on your new path. May God bless you and embrace you in the heavens above.”
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