Scientists, Common Sense: Swimming in the Gowanus Canal is a Very, Very Bad Idea


A long-awaited report from the New York State Department of Health will leave real estate developers along the banks of America’s hottest new neighborhood/toxic hellhole breathing a sigh of relief after the report found that it’s safe to breathe the air around the Gowanus Canal, and to even boat on it, but please, for the love of god, do not swim in it.

“Water in the Gowanus Canal periodically contains levels of fecal coliform bacteria that indicate an increased risk of illness from recreational contact with the water,” the report states. Fecal coliform is exactly what you think it is, by the way. The report continues: “Water from the Gowanus Canal contains microorganisms, such as coliform bacteria, and likely contains viruses and parasites (protozoas) that can make a person ill if they enter the body. There is increased risk of contracting diseases through swallowing or skin contact with these disease-causing agents.”

So swimming is off the table, but what about my love of canoeing? Can that blinding desire for a good hour’s paddle be fulfilled on the stagnant waters of the mighty Gowanus? No problem, says New York State.

“DOH and ATSDR conclude that recreational boating (for example, canoeing or kayaking) or “catch and release” fishing from a boat in the Gowanus Canal is not expected to harm people’s health,” the report says, before going on to warn again that you really, really shouldn’t come into contact with the canal water itself.

Marine life has had a pretty dismal record in the canal. In 2013, a dolphin died shortly after being stranded in the canal during low-tide. A whale did the same in 2007, and a shark was shot by police in 1950 in front of dozens of onlookers. But apparently people still fish in the canal, and according to the report, that’s not so dangerous! You just shouldn’t eat too much, and you shouldn’t eat it at all if you’re under fifteen or a woman under fifty. Please refer to this nifty little chart they’ve hooked up for you:

For the love of god, maybe you should just err on the side of not eating anything you catch in the Gowanus Canal?

As for the real estate possibilities in a neighborhood that saw prices shoot up an astonishing 68% in 2016, those remain intact. The report says that “The risks for health effects posed by the air contaminants are expected to be similar to that of typical urban air.” In laymen’s, you run the same risk of cancer living between a toxic canal and the BQE as you do everywhere else in the city. That’s… reassuring? We’re all screwed.

The report concludes by saying that while New York is giving the green light to boating, fishing, and just generally hanging out around the canal, there are ample other places nearby that don’t pose “the same risks as the Gowanus Canal.” Maybe make a date for crabbing in the Newtown Creek instead?