Gowanus Environmental Risks? A Cheatsheet for asking questions about exposure.

January 31, 2009

I’m considering moving to the section of Gowanus, Brooklyn that abuts Park slope — East of 4th Avenue and South of, say, 12 street. But I’ve heard a lot about environmental issues in Gowanus, not just related to the Canal itself, and I’d like to get an informed opinion about the risks involved in living in this area. If this is not your area of expertise, could you point me in the direction of someone who is an expert. Thanks for your help. -Bob

Bob,

Thanks for getting in touch with us, and also for your patience in awaiting a response. You ask a good question, and one that is not just for the Gowanus area, but pertains to any industrial urban area (e.g. Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Hunts Point, LIC, etc.) The short answer is, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Below is some information on why I say this:

If I understand you, you’re concerned about the likelihood that you would be impacted by contamination in the area. Let’s talk first about how you might be exposed to that contamination. You could breath it in the air, you could eat or drink it, or you could touch it directly and absorb it through the skin.

The Gowanus area doesn’t have any serious air contamination issues that aren’t prevalent throughout NYC. NYC as a whole is a Non-Attainment area under the Clean Air Act for several contaminants including small particulates and others. This means that average concentrations in various parts of the City exceed what EPA thinks is safe. So while NYC as a whole has problems with air quality and certain areas are worse than others, I don’t know of anything that says Gowanus is especially bad. The Canal can sometimes smell bad, but that (as I understand it) is hydrogen sulfide generated by bacteria in the canal. Hydrogen sulfide is not toxic, except maybe at extreme concentrations that would never occur outdoors. So wrinkled noses are the worst effect that can cause.

The other two exposure pathways involve actual hazardous substances or contaminated water and soil. You’re really only going to find actual hazardous substances in active industrial facilities and they are all regulated fairly well by the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation, and the US EPA. I wouldn’t worry overmuch about those. However, there has been about 200 years of industrial activity that wasn’t so tightly regulated, and it has left contaminated soil and water all over the place.

Contaminated soil can be found primarily on sites that have a history of industrial use. If you move into a converted industrial building, you may want to make sure it was converted legally and ask the landlord if they’ve looked into environmental issues that may be present on the site. S/he probably won’t like you asking about that, but you have a right to know, so ask anyway.

The houses down between 3rd and 4th avenue were likely built a long time ago and shouldn’t have too much of that history, but you never know. Many sites, especially in urban areas, may have received fill (soil) from another property to grade out a yard. This fill is often contaminated. This is not unique to Gowanus. The worst example of this I’ve seen is in Pittsfield, MA where a GE chemical plant used soil to mop up spills at the plant and then gave it away as fill that people put into their yards. This happened before we knew better and is really rare so don’t worry about that scenario in particular. Most of the time the fill is pretty benign, but in urban areas it can contain elevated concentrations of metals and petroleum by-products. Lastly, there is the possibility that contamination from a nearby industrial site seeped into the ground and then drifted with the groundwater underneath a neighboring property. In general, this kind of contamination is far enough below ground so as not to be an issue, but the water table (surface of the groundwater) in this area is (I think) fairly close to the surface.

After saying all that, avoiding contact with contaminated soil and water is pretty easy and that will minimize your exposure to whatever might be in the soil. Don’t eat the dirt (an instruction more important for kids than adults), and avoid digging or gardening or other activities like that and you should be able to avoid whatever happens to be beneath your property.

One exception to this is soil gas. When volatile compounds are present in the soil (things like gasoline or dry cleaning solvents), they can seep up to the surface. Outside, they simply float away harmlessly at concentrations too low for anyone to care, but in a basement they can collect to harmful concentrations. There have been some news articles about this recently in Greenpoint. Now in Greenpoint, they’re facing the largest oil spill in US history, so it’s more of an issue there than one might expect in Gowanus.

The canal is probably best left alone (i.e. no touching) if you’re very concerned about this type of issue. NYS DEC has classified this waterbody as SD, which is the worst one they give out. Swimming, boating and activities that involve direct contact with the water are not recommended. However, there are groups (e.g. the Gowanus Dredgers) who have boating events on the canal. They are not going to drop dead tomorrow. They simply might be exposed to some higher concentrations of chemicals or bacteria than NYS DEC recommends. While I’m no toxicologist, I’d say they the risk they’re running is fairly low, but its one you may choose not to run.

So I’ve talked about all these sources of contamination because I wanted to give you information you can use to avoid contact with contaminants that may be in the environment there. At the end of the day though, the concentrations of contaminants you are likely to encounter are fairly low and are of concern only in terms of chronic effects. If you were to be exposed like that consistently over a lifetime, you might get sick (or might not). But for a bit here or there over a few years in an apartment in Gowanus, it’s not likely to have a discernible effect. In addition, if you avoid activities that bring you into direct contact with soil and water like gardening or boating, then you might avoid even that. Or at least you’ll be no worse off than the rest of us in this urban setting.

If you have concerns about a particular site, call the NYS Department of Conservation. They regulate hazardous substance use, handling, and cleanup and they have on-line databases that can show you where different types of sites and resources are.

Hope this proves helpful.

Steven Lenard
GreenHomeNYC

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