Dysentery, Cancer, and Other Things That Happen When You Drink From The Gowanus


On the off-chance you come across anyone dangling over the edge of the Gowanus’ banks, lapping up the water like a cat: grab them by the ankles and pull them away. Turns out, that stuff’s not so good for you!

Which anyone who’s ever smelled or just seen a picture of the canal could probably have already told you with a good amount of certainty. But now we know even more about the ways in which its waters might shut down your organs, thanks to a fascinating piece over at Popular Science in which Dan Nosowitz looks into what should be a fairly simple question: “What Would Happen If You Drank Water From the Gowanus Canal?” The short answer here is “nothing good,” and the longer answer starts about where you’d think it would, with explosive diarrhea: “So, right off the bat, you’d have a massive problem with dysentery,” an expert tells Nosowitz at the beginning of the piece.

There’s also a strong possibility of  heightened cancer risk and future birth defects thanks to high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the water, alongside things like liquid coal, copper, and arsenic (though, not enough arsenic to actually do immediate damage). Nosowitz also notes that “the quantity of fecal matter, usually measured in parts per million, can be measured in parts per hundred in the Gowanus.” Yeesh.

But other than that, nobody really knows. Even with the canal’s status as a superfund site (and even when it pertains to serious questions about the canal’s long-term effects on people who live nearby, who have anecdotally been shown to be at higher risk for early cancer), scientists haven’t really been able to wrangle funding to study what’s actually in there. “The funds go towards things like cancer and heart disease, because these can be treated with drugs, which are very expensive, so you can sell more,” said one researcher. “Who wants to study these pathogens?”

And also, the answer to this question would be elaborate and fairly insane: the chemical makeup of the canal changes in new and terrible ways depending on what spot you happen to take water from. Of his own sample Nosowitz says, “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.” Disgusting, mutant micro-environments:

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.

Why indeed. Unless you were, say, researching the serious ways in which its waters might be making locals sick (or happened to see a three-eyed fish shuffling around), but seems like for the time being we’ll be flying blind on that one. But I guess we can pat ourselves on the backs and continue doing the smart thing we were all doing already: not drinking water out of the Gowanus.


Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.

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