Last week, Nelly Medina went to give her 7-year-old son a bath. But when she turned on the faucet in their apartment at the Lakeside public housing complex in Worcester, yellowish brown water came out. She kept the faucet running for an hour, hoping the color would dissipate. But the water stayed brown.
Every day for the rest of the week, Medina drove 40 minutes roundtrip to her father’s house so she and her son could bathe in clean water. The color of the water in her apartment has since improved, and she has resumed using it for some purposes, but she’s still afraid to drink it.
“I’m concerned there may be something in the water,” Medina said. “I think about what happened in Flint, Michigan, and I don't want my family to be impacted the way those innocent people were.”
Medina and a dozen other residents at Lakeside Apartments told GBH News that the brown water is a common sight. Since last year, it’s been coming out of people's taps every few weeks, usually lasting a couple days each time.
Unsure whether the water’s safe, residents say they've relied on bottled water to drink, do dishes and brush their teeth. Those who said they did drink brown tap water told GBH News they got sick afterward. People said the water also stains their clothes when they wash them.
“I’m concerned there may be something in the water. I think about what happened in Flint, Michigan, and I don't want my family to be impacted the way those innocent people were.”Nelly Medina
While some residents said they don’t experience problems with their water, a majority that GBH News interviewed for this story complained about the recurring discoloration.
The water problems have left those people increasingly frustrated about the living conditions at Lakeside Apartments, where some units also feature unreliable heating systems and walls and ceilings with mold and peeling paint. Several residents say they fear that instead of addressing problems, the Worcester Housing Authority is neglecting the complex as officials prepare to redevelop it. The authority contests that claim, saying they remain responsive to residents' needs.
The housing authority plans to demolish all 202 apartments and build 374 new ones over the next decade. Officials have said the redevelopment project is necessary because Lakeside is over 70 years old and the units are showing signs of wear and tear.
Lagina Brown, who shares an apartment with her mom and 9-month-old daughter, said they’ve notified the complex's maintenance team multiple times about the discolored water, but the problem persists. At this point, they said they’ve come to expect dirty water coming out of their taps.
“It comes and goes. Maybe half a month we have to deal with it,” said Brown's mom, Samantha.
The Browns said they refuse to drink the tap water. They buy several jugs of drinking water from the market every week. Bathing is also difficult.
Lagina has no choice but to give her daughter baths in the water, but she fears it’s the reason the baby has developed painful diaper rashes. Samantha said she showers just once a week to limit her contact.
“Have you ever seen that movie 'Tarzan' where the elephant’s like, ‘Mom, is there any bacteria? Is this sanitary?’ That’s how I feel,” Lagina said. “I don’t feel like it’s sanitary enough for us to digest or even bathe in.”
“Have you ever seen that movie 'Tarzan' where the elephant’s like, ‘Mom, is there any bacteria? Is this sanitary?’ That’s how I feel. I don’t feel like it’s sanitary enough for us to digest or even bathe in.”Lagina Brown
Other residents shared similar experiences. They said that if they or their children take baths in the water, their skin starts to itch and can develop rashes.
Skin conditions aren't their only concerns. Amanda Lugo, who’s lived at Lakeside for three years, added that she's drank the water in the past. But she stopped because it made her sick.
“I get a stomachache. I get all types of gastro problems,” Lugo said. “The water is unacceptable. It’s disgusting.”
In an interview, Worcester Housing Authority CEO Alex Corrales said officials are committed to maintaining and investing in Lakeside Apartments despite the plans to redevelop the neighborhood.
He attributed the brown water to recent repairs of a leaking water pipe on the property. Maintenance workers had to shut the water off to fix the pipe, Corrales said. When they turned the water back on, there was a sudden change in water flow, which he said likely dislodged sediment and caused the water to temporarily turn brown.
Corrales added that the city of Worcester has also done some work on underground water pipes near Lakeside Apartments. That could have also disrupted the water flow. Corrales said that if residents see brown water, they should keep their taps running so that any sediment in the water line can flush out.
“It’s very normal to experience some brown water for sure,” Corrales said. “I know being a Worcester resident all my life, when there's been water work done in my area, we'll see some brown water. And then once the work is complete, it should go away.”
Corrales followed up and said he notified the city of the problem. In response, Worcester officials said they were flushing out the water system.
Still, residents note that they’ve tried leaving their taps running in the past, to no avail. They question why the water continues to turn brown so regularly if the discoloration just stems from some water pipe repairs.
Residents said they won’t trust the water until it stops turning brown and independent water quality tests verify that it’s safe to drink.
“The fact that we're living in the United States of America in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2023 and we're still concerned about our water and the quality of it ... and that there are no answers immediately available to us, I think is an injustice,” Medina said.