Here's the swimwear for one of the most polluted waterways in America: a yellow-and-black dry suit, flippers, thick, black gloves, a green swimming cap with the hashtag #hope scrawled on it in black marker, goggles and ear plugs—plus a whole lot of water-repelling gel on your neck and face. That's what Christopher Swain wrapped himself in before he plunged into the putrid Gowanus Canal on April 22, 2015. The 47-year-old is something of a professional swimmer of dirty waters, and he took to the Gowanus on Earth Day to highlight the need to clean it up. "I don't ever worry about being in the water," he says, calling swimming in the suit sort of like swimming in a bubble. "I'm not worried about getting gonorrhea."
Gonorrhea is only one of many ingredients suspended in the canal water. It is also rife with raw sewage, coal tar, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, gasoline, all sorts of viruses, and of course, human excrement—all splashing across Swain’s face as he swam the three-kilometer-long canal on the western shore of Brooklyn, across the harbor from lower Manhattan.
Just upstream from where Swain plopped into the murky green mix sit the open, round mouths of active sewer pipes. "I'll jump in if you'll jump in," calls out one onlooker to her friend across the 30-meter-wide waterway on a warehouse rooftop. But there are no takers besides Swain. "He's putting a lot of faith in that suit," notes another bystander.
Swimming the Gowanus is weather dependent, because even a drizzle will flood the canal—no more than five meters deep at its deepest points—with new sewage, thanks to all those outflow pipes. And what started out as a bright spring day filled with the sounds of rumbling diesel engines, construction hammers and the iconic tune of an enterprising ice cream truck quickly soured, as the sky turned threatening and spring breezes sent riplets scurrying across the water.
Of course, the environmental activist prepared for his hazardous dip by swimming in the ocean in his native Massachusetts and getting a series of shots: tetanus, hepatitis A and hepatitis B. But for the most part, Swain trusted a series of quick gargles with hydrogen peroxide and the power of drying in the cold, open air to protect him from harm from bacteria such as gonorrhea. "It's just like swimming through a dirty diaper," he proclaims.
Swain made sure to keep his head above water throughout the entire swim. He ended on the newly refurbished banks of the canal at Whole Foods, this outpost of the high-end grocery chain resplendent with parking lot shaded by solar panels, festooned with vertical wind turbines and boasting a rooftop farm. Still, just across the canal sits a scrap metal yard as well as New York State's new parole center for Brooklyn. "We deserve a Gowanus Canal that sparkles like a jewel," Swain says.
The Gowanus is a roiling Superfund site thanks not just to the sewer pipes but to more than a century of industrial use that continues today. Cement trucks and other heavy vehicles shook the bridges as he swam underneath. A bulldozer dumped gravel into one of the several cement plants that line the canal.
And the industrial canal has arguably never been particularly good for swimming, starting life as a meandering tidal stream in a swamp more suitable for wading before industrial use started in 1848. This very magazine lauded the new techniques used to turn what was marsh and "waste land" into solid ground in 1872. We also noted, with approval, the canal’s use as a sewer in articles in 1892 though C.E. Wilson took to our pages in July of 1911 to worry about the health effects of what he called a "fermenting pool, the odor of which may produce a serious nuisance for considerable distances from its banks." Indeed.
You could say that we've been covering the Gowanus from the beginning, and it's clear that for 200 years or more, people have been dumping in the waterway, starting perhaps with those who began to fill in the canal with middens of shells from the then abundant oysters. After all this time, no one can be sure exactly what's down there, from shipwrecks to cancer-causing pollution or "90 percent guns," as author Jonathan Lethem put it in Motherless Brooklyn.
The primary pollution is likely coal tar, however, a legacy of turning coal to "town gas" in order to light the night—examples of which can still be found in the flickering flames of gas lamps extant in Park Slope's historic district. Giant iron tanks towered over the neighborhood for decades to hold the town gas but the residual coal tar was routinely dumped in the canal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the canal a Superfund site in 2010 because of all this coal tar and the agency plans to dredge the hundreds of thousands of tons of muck that line the bottom of the canal, and then incinerate it, by 2022.
In fact, the EPA even considers living on a houseboat on the canal a potential hazard. When I canoed the canal a few years back, I took extra care to avoid splashing or even touching the water as I got in and out of the canoe. The only way I'd swim in the canal is if I was swathed in this:
Swain, however, embraced two of the EPA's bright red no-nos: direct contact with canal water and direct contact with its mud. "I didn't drink the water," Swain clarifies. "It was in my mouth."
Swain says the water tasted like a slightly turgid mix of mud, excrement, sand, detergent, gasoline and, surprisingly, grass, perhaps a bit of the algae that gives the water its murky green hue. He adds that he couldn't even see his gloved hands at the ends of his arms when swimming, especially since he kept kicking the bottom and stirring up whatever lurks down there, including toxic chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and PCBs, as well as heavy metals like lead. He describes the water as cold and a bit fatty, a fact he demonstrates by smearing it on a metal fence. "Gross," Swain says in summary.
Of course, Swain is not the only person to have ever swum in the canal, just perhaps the only to have done so by choice. A New York Police Department scuba team accompanied him in a rubber dinghy at a safe remove, and the young glasses-wearing diver in his own jet black rubber suit admitted to me he had swum in the Gowanus more times than he would have liked to rescuing folks who accidentally fall in. Seals have been sighted in the canal in the past, and a sick dolphin and whale visited in recent years, disoriented enough to swim up the canal to die.
Swain looked invigorated by his short swim, however, and, perhaps, the prospect of his decontamination regimen: dumping a bucket of bleach and water over himself and smearing some zinc gel up his nose. "I could get diarrhea," he admits, laughing and looking robust and healthy despite his dip in the polluted waterway. No one is hugging him once he's out, though some applaud. "I'm not gonna shake your hand," says one cop, laughing, smiling, shaking his head no and backing away, as Swain thanks him for his help.
© David Biello
Unfortunately, Swain has had a lot of experience swimming in polluted waters. His kayaking companion Nicole Butterfield first joined him for a swim in the Connecticut River back in 1996, choosing to enter the water well downstream from the sewage treatment plant, she recalls. Swain has since swum thousands of miles in rivers from the Columbia in the Pacific Northwest to the Charles in Boston. He describes the Charles as the worst in terms of raw sewage, surpassing even the Gowanus despite its fetid reputation. Still, he says the Gowanus “is arguably the most polluted water in North America." He adds: "we put a man on the moon. We split the atom. We can clean up the Gowanus Canal."