Thursday, April 23, 2015

Earth Day report: Man goes for swim in Gowanus Canal, lives to tell tale (so far)


Anyone for a swim? Popular Science labeled this photo by Dan Bracaglia: "A Swirl of . . . Something."

"We don't really know what's in there, we don't know what's in the soil and air around it, and we don't know how it affects the tens of thousands of people who live within a few blocks of it. . . .

"The EPA recommends people avoid the canal water, the land around it, the air above and adjacent to it, and anything that swims or crawls in it."

-- Popular Science's Dan Nosowitz
on the Gowanus Canal (October 2013)

by Ken

Not the winter just past but the one before that, on what turned out to be an exceptionally frigid day (single-digit temps) Francis Morrone led a never-say-uncle band of winter-walking warriors on a stroll around, of all things, the Gowanus Canal, which he explained he has been happily traipsing around through all the various decades he's lived in NYC.

Of course not everyone who had registered showed up -- for one of Francis's tours it's a good guess that the full complement of 30 tourers had signed up, and we certainly didn't have any 30 people on hand. But amazingly the people who did show up stuck it out to the frigid end. It was even crazier for me, because I had just come from doing a whole other walking tour, also in Brooklyn, of Bushwick, with Joe Svehlak, who had been amazed that anyone showed up in that bitter cold. In fact, we'd had a pretty decent-size group there too, and there too most everyone who showed up stuck it out to the end. We can be tough, us Gothamites.

Since then I know Francis has done the Gowanus Canal jaunt again, in presumably less crazy weather, and I would have loved to revisit the sights with him, but I had a schedule conflict. I bring up the subject of this tour, though, because it was either on that tour or one of the others I've done with Francis which put us in close proximity to the canal that he read us terrifying excerpts from an article about one of North America's most polluted waterways which had been published recently in Popular Science (by coincidence a journalistic alma mater of mine).

I just dug out what I'm guessing must be the article in question, "What Would Happen if You Drank Water from the Gowanus Canal?" by Dan Nosowitz, posted in October 2013., and here's a sample:
[T]he Gowanus is one of the most creatively and massively pathogenetic waterways on the planet. We know some things; we know that the quantity of fecal matter, usually measured in parts per million, can be measured in parts per hundred in the Gowanus. But the Gowanus isn't any one thing; water taken from different parts of the canal, from different depths, will have totally different levels of contaminants, microbes, radioactive materials, or carcinogenic materials. I took a sample, pictured throughout this article, by hanging off of some scaffolding underneath the Union Street bridge--but that's surface water, in the shade, near shore ("shore" in this case being foul, reddish mud), in one part of the canal.

That water is polluted and dangerous as hell, but it's polluted and dangerous in an entirely different way than most other water in the Gowanus. This is what happens when you have a huge, 1.8-mile waterway that's completely stagnant: you get micro-environments, because there's hardly any interaction between the water I grabbed and, say, water a few inches above the muck in the center of the canal.

The other, bigger problem is that there's essentially no funding for testing. We don't really know what's in there, we don't know what's in the soil and air around it, and we don't know how it affects the tens of thousands of people who live within a few blocks of it.
Here's another chunk (links onsite):
Nasreen Haque, a microbiologist who has studied--or attempted to study--the microbial makeup of the Gowanus, was teaching at the City University of New York a few years ago. As an exercise, she decided to have her students test for microbes in water she assumed would have some--the Gowanus. "We found that everything we threw at it, every kind of imaginable pathogen, was growing there," she told me. But here's where it gets nuts: in the stagnant water of the canal, fed by chemicals from raw sewage, tar, and rotting garbage in the sludge at the bottom of the canal, they're breeding and evolving into new forms we've never seen before, in concentrations seen in few other places on Earth. It was only in 2008 that Haque conducted a study revealing the white clouds of "biofilm" that float just above the sludge at the bottom of the canal. The clouds aren't microscopic; they're giant clumps of white gunk that nobody had ever seen before, because hardly anyone has ever been submerged in the canal, because Jesus Christ, why would you go in the canal.

Microbes shouldn't be able to survive in the Gowanus; it's estimated that the oxygen levels are at 1.5 parts per million due to the lack of circulation, less than the 4 parts per million needed to sustain a healthy population of marine life. And yet they're thriving, mutating into new forms. "Nobody is researching the microbial makeup of the Gowanus," said Haque. But it might even be to their benefit; the purpose of her study was to see if these mutated microbes could hold the key to new antibiotics. As you can see in this sampling (PDF), taken by the EPA shortly after Hurricane Sandy, there's basically no test at all for microbial content. The test for Enterococcus you see there is basically a canary in a mineshaft; that particular bacterium is believed to have a strong correlation with the concentration of other pathogens in a body of water. If a body of water tests highly for Enterococcus--and boy, does the Gowanus test highly--it's a pretty good sign that there's a whole bunch of other nasty stuff going on in there too.

Haque only discovered the white clouds of biofilm because she is one of very few to have dived beneath its surface. Hardly anyone has every actually gone into the water; the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy is about the only organization that does it (Haque made her dive with the help of the Urban Divers). The testing itself is very difficult for an environment as dense and varied and unknown as the Gowanus. "Normally, you'd get a sample, bring it to the lab, and try to grow it, but you'll only see the microbes that best respond to the nutrient you provided," says Haque. "If you put in ten different nutrient types, you'd grow ten different types of bacteria."
And, oh yes, we can't leave out this:
There's very little data on the microbial makeup of the Gowanus, but the EPA, the Department of Environmental Protection, and other governmental and non-governmental groups have measured other dangers lurking in (and beneath) the water: heavy metals, carcinogens, congeners, and more.

The EPA recommends people avoid the canal water, the land around it, the air above and adjacent to it, and anything that swims or crawls in it. There are highly carcinogenic materials in the land and water, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are found (and banned) in some plastics, or in the charred parts of grilled food. There is literally liquid coal tar in the Gowanus, bubbling up from the muck towards the surface. There are also high concentrations of heavy metals, like arsenic, lead, iron, manganese, cadmium, and zinc. Those aren't toxic immediately, and indeed humans need a small amount of some of those metals, but they're all rated at an unsafe level in the Gowanus. If they get into your system and build up, they become highly carcinogenic. Let's start off with a real easy one: arsenic.

"Arsenic at ten locations with maximum concentrations of 8.2 µg/L and 7.8 µg/L for dissolved and total concentrations, respectively, compared to the human health screening value of 0.14 µg/L," reads one EPA Gowanus report. Arsenic is a poison, plain and simple, and the dissolved concentration of arsenic in the Gowanus reaches nearly 60 times the human health screening value, which is the point at which exposure becomes unsafe. Arsenic needs to build up in the system, so one glass won't have too much of an effect--but a glass of that hyper-arsenic-filled water will lift your arsenic levels dramatically. Keep it up and you'll end up with drowsiness, then confusion, then severe diarrhea, then convulsions and cramping, then blood in the urine, and soon enough, a coma and death. Cool."
Cool indeed, Dan! And remember, this is just the arsenic component, one of about a zillion toxic substances known to lurk in the canal. So whaddaya say, everyone in the water? Last one in's . . . well, a candidate for drowsiness, then confusion, then severe diarrhea, then convulsions and cramping, then blood in the urine, and soon enough, a coma and death -- just to pick one among the known canal toxins.


At this point you should be sufficiently primed for a story you may have heard about, where some crazy person announced that he was going to take a swim in the canal, and then did it! Our pal Mai Armstrong, the blogger for the Working Harbor Committee, filed this report (with more pictures onsite):
He Actually DID Swim In It

There he is! The tiny yellow blob! Photo by Mai Armstrong

by Mai Armstrong for the Working Harbor Committee

Yesterday, I went to watch clean water advocate Chris Swain’s earth day swim in the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. Word was he would swim the entire toxic length.

Heading for the 3rd Street Bridge, I set myself up in the Whole Foods Market parking lot pocket-park – coffee and restrooms close by! – along with dozens of news media outlets, buzzing helicopters overhead, and a few bewildered local shoppers with their dogs.

It had rained the previous day, and I wondered how much raw sewage had been freshly discharged into the waterway.

We waited for a looong time. The reporters started to thin out, and eventually the helicopters left. My companion started to fidget so we abandoned the effort, and decided lunch on the outdoor roof deck at Whole Foods was in order.

At some point, the swimmer came into view, and I snapped a couple of shots of him splashing in the water before he climbed ashore. I was kind of glad not to be too close, I didn’t want any of that water on me!

I gathered from my fellow gawkers, that the swim had been cut short by the impending weather, and sure enough the skies darkened and the wind picked up as I wound my way home.

Did he accomplish his goal to raise awareness? The media were there… but I got the impression they were there to see a guy swim in poop. What do you think? Noble or reckless? Irresponsible or dedicated? Brave or stupid? Let me know in the comments.


It's a double-header May 31st: Newtown Creek from 11am to 1pm (with our pal Mitch Waxman, the Newtown Creek Alliance's official historian, providing commentary); Gowanus Bay and the Gowanus Canal from 1:10 to 3:10pm. Both depart from and return to East River Pier 11 (Wall Street), and tickets are $30, $25 for seniors. I've done a WHC "cruise" up Newtown Creek, but I signed up for this one as soon as it was announced. Thanks to the following boat trip, it should get me back in time to make my 2pm MAS

Newtown Creek
Sunday, May 31, 11am-1pm
Come explore Newtown Creek by boat with The Working Harbor Committee with Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman as your guide. Boarding begins at 10:30 a.m., and departs at 11:00 a.m. sharp. A 2-hour, fully narrated, round-trip excursion on a NY Waterway vessel.

Buy tickets here.
Gowanus Bay and Canal
Sunday, May 31, 1:10-3:10pm
Come explore Gowanus Bay and Canal including Erie Basin & Sunset Park by boat with The Working Harbor Committee. Learn about Erie Basin, GBX Gowanus Bay Terminals, the Historic Ferry Yankee, the giant Slag Ship MV Loujaine, the Big Grain Elevator, the Gowanus Canal, Sunset Park and more! A 2-hour, fully narrated, round-trip excursion on a NY Waterway vessel.

Buy tickets here.


Dan Nosowitz himself allows that his title question, "What would happen if you drank a glass of water from the Gowanus?," is "flawed."
Even if the Gowanus is eventually repaired enough to pass EPA standards, the EPA has totally different standards for waterway water and for drinking water. You're not supposed to drink out of any canal, really. But it was my way to figure out what's going on in the canal. And it turns out that nobody really knows.
Still, everyone he asks the question comes back with, shall we say, an unencouraging reply. At the end of his piece he mans up and confronts the question. "For now," he says, the answer "seems to be a horrified 'nobody knows, but nothing good. And probably diarrhea.' "

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At 6:26 AM, Blogger ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Brave man, good cause.

At 9:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nestle and the other companies monopolizing American drinking water sources love articles like this, for it makes people want to spend more on their allegedly clean drinking water products. Profit Uber Alles!

At 1:29 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Huh? That's about as wacky a stretch as my poor brain can imagine. In fact, I'm tempted to call it stark, staring nuts. (Is there any living, breathing soul who would actually contemplate actually drinking Gowanus Canal water?) But then, what do I know?


At 3:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You clearly don't know how to read, or you'd understand what I said.

At 11:50 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

That's the disadvantage of being a moron. You don't know what you said.



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