What Happens When You Flush…? Ask the Gowanus Canal.

The Gowanus Canal, an infamous Brooklyn waterway, is more than just a little bit toxic.  This “toilet bowl” of a canal is so dirty that the EPA declared it a Superfund site in 2010.  (Be careful not to confuse “superfund” with “super fun.”  The government marked the canal as one of the nation’s most contaminated toxic waste sites, not “super fun” in the slightest.)

More than a century of vile pollutants have built up in the waters of the Gowanus.  Beginning in the 1860s, the 1.8 mile canal was used as a waterway for oil refineries, coal yards, chemical plants, tanneries, and various factories.  By 1910, the canal was already thick with sewage and pollutants and, since then, not much has changed.

The cast of toxic characters includes: heavy metals (like mercury and lead), PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, also found in the Hudson River Superfund site), PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), pesticides, and coal tar.  Behind the scenes you have: cholera, typhoid, typhus, gonorrhea.  It’s a big, bad, dirty milieu of carcinogens and diseases.

The EPA has identified some groups potentially responsible for the contamination, including the city of New York and Con Edison, and they plan on dredging the canal and eliminating all sources of continuing contamination.  Rest assured, the polluters will be the ones dishing out the cash.  Unfortunately, the cleanup project is traveling at the speed of sludge… it’s expected to take 10 to 12 years and cost $300 to $500 million.

In the meantime, the Gowanus remains the toilet bowl of the City.  The combined sewage overflow (CSO) system of the city means that every time it rains, the rain water enters the sewer system and it overflows.  Each year, 27 billion gallons of raw sewage gush into the waterways of NYC.  Take a closer look at debris floating in the canal…

Don’t Flush Me, a new project on ioby, connects city residents to their wastewater. The system alerts users when their section of the sewer system is overloaded. The idea is to enable residents to understand when overflows happen and to suggest a reduction in water waste during that overflow period.  Or, of course, you could keep your waste out of the system all together by using a composting toilet!  (An ioby project in the Bronx is doing just that!)

One last thing to remember, biological amplification means that toxins become more concentrated as they travel through the food chain.  These toxins can eventually end up in the soil, especially soil around the contaminated area.  So if you’re planning on starting a veggie garden in this area, be sure to get your soil tested.  Munching on toxic sludge contaminated carrots is not so yummy.


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