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Go Ahead and Breathe the Gowanus Canal Air, But Don't Swim In It: Report

By Leslie Albrecht | January 16, 2017 2:44pm | Updated on January 17, 2017 5:11pm
 Environmental activist swimming in the Gowanus Canal. State health officials said in a new report that swimming in the canal could harm people's health.
Environmental activist swimming in the Gowanus Canal. State health officials said in a new report that swimming in the canal could harm people's health.
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DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

GOWANUS — Feel free to breathe the air or paddle a canoe on the polluted Gowanus Canal, but don't go swimming in it and don't eat fish caught there if you're a child or woman under 50, state health officials warn in a new report.

The 86-page report, eight years in the making, analyzed chemicals and contaminants in the canal's water, air, fish and sediment — the toxic ooze on its bottom sometimes called black mayonnaise — to give people the "best information" on how living near the toxin-filled waterway could affect their health, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Health said.

The bottom line: breathing the air and boating isn't expected to harm human health, but swimming could and so could eating too much seafood. Analysts concluded that breathing the air near the canal, fouled by decades of industrial pollution, carries a "very low to low risk" for cancer, a threat that's "similar to that of typical urban air," the report states.

Swimming, however, could make a person sick and frequent dips in the canal could increase cancer risk, the report concluded. People should avoid any activity that could lead to swallowing canal water and should wash their hands after touching the water, the report recommends.

The findings drew mixed reaction from the varied groups that advocate for the challenged waterway. A member of the canal's canoe club cheered the results, while an environmental activist criticized the report as raising more questions than it answers.

Owen Foote of the Gowanus Dredgers, which leads canoe tours of the canal, said the report affirmed something his group has been claiming for years: It's safe to boat on the canal.

"It's almost an endorsement that [canoeing] is a sport that should be pursued, despite challenges with the waterway," Foote said of the report.

Foote said he was glad to see DOH recommend new signage at the water's edge to replace existing signs that warn people not to boat there at all. He also liked that the report acknowledged the dangers boaters face from a lack of safe entry and exit points in the canal.

But Sean Dixon, an attorney with the environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper, questioned the report's findings, in part because they're based on old data.

Analysts used data collected in 2007, 2010 and 2011 to evaluate health risks, and the air quality samples were collected over just two days, Dixon noted. That methodology falls short, Dixon said, because, as anyone who lives in Gowanus knows, the canal's air quality changes a lot depending on the weather and boat traffic.

"Any scientists worth their salt would have taken data from a suite of different weather and day types and looked at the system as a whole, as opposed to saying we’re just going to take these two days from a decade ago and make some broad-based public health community risk recommendations based on that," Dixon said.

He added, "That in my mind isn’t science and it isn’t risk assessment, that’s something less and we deserve more."

Dixon questioned how state health officials concluded that eating fish or crabs from the canal doesn't present any more of a health risk than seafood from any other New York City waterway, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has called the canal one of the most polluted waterways in the country.

Dixon said he's hoping the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group — a group of locals who help guide the EPA's Superfund cleanup — will invite state health officials to discuss their findings with the community.

CAG members asked state officials back in 2012 to do a health effects study of the canal, but DOH officials said then that a study would take too long. Instead, DOH's new report is a "public health assessment," which differs from a health effects study.

An assessment looks at how humans are exposed to contaminants at hazardous sites such as the canal and analyzes whether that exposure is harmful and should be stopped, a DOH spokesman said. A study evaluates the health of people who've been exposed to those contaminants using data from medical tests and other sources, the spokesman said.

The new report comes as more people than ever are living on the polluted waterway at new developments such as 365 Bond, where air quality is monitored to ensure residents aren't exposed to contaminants.

The canal, polluted from decades of dumping by nearby industrial businesses and a regular deluge of raw sewage, is now undergoing a massive cleanup led by the EPA. Some worry that the EPA's cleanup could slow down during President-elect Donald Trump's presidency, and Andrea Parker, executive director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, said the new health report was a good reminder of the dangers posed by the canal.

"I think it's useful in that, especially in this time of not really knowing what's going to happen to the federal government and especially the EPA, it's good to have the state authorities be really firm about this water body being really dirty," Parker said.