Sandy Brought Sewage But Not Toxic Waste to Gowanus

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The canal this weekend. Photo: Adam Pasick

Superstorm Sandy swamped the Gowanus Canal, famous as one of America's most contaminated bodies of water, flooding the neighborhood's roads and basements with dirty water and leaving residents with one very important question: What am I standing in?

The results are now in: According to tests from Riverkeeper and the EPA, the Gowanus floodwaters contained very high levels of bacteria like Enterococcus — a sure sign of raw sewage. So yes, the entire neighborhood, especially basements, was essentially submerged in poop.

Enterococcus can cause urinary tract infections, diverticulitis, and even meningitis. But it could have been a lot worse. In addition to the overflow from the city's overtaxed sewer system, the Gowanus Canal is home to a sludge of toxic and cancer-causing chemicals known as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and many feared that a major storm like Sandy could stir those up and distribute them around the fast-gentrifying neighborhood. But the tests show this did not happen in any significant way:

Levels of semi-volatile organic compounds were very low or not detected. These compounds include PAHs, which are a primary contaminant in the sediments at the bottom of the canal. The presence of some PAHs at low levels may also be related to spilled fuel and run off from asphalt.

State officials told the Wall Street Journal that “floodwaters probably traveled over the Gowanus and Brooklyn's other Superfund site, Newtown Creek, without disturbing the pollutants that line the bottoms of both waterways.” 

Ironically, the sheer force of Sandy brought immense amounts of clean seawater into the heavily polluted canal, flushing it out like a toilet. The EPA prescribed “caution in cleaning or being in contact with any areas that have been touched by sewage or bacteria.” This meant, for Gowanus residents, simply walking down the street.

Via commenter Namrobal, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health provides these guidelines for protecting yourself from sewage in floodwaters and their aftermath.