2. The Gowanus Canal Once Had “Sandbars” of Human Waste

Gowanus Bay-Dutch New Amsterdam-Brooklyn-Illustration-NYCCourtesy of NYU Press, from Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal

There may be luxury condos going up next to the Gowanus Canal, but it doesn’t change the fact that the body of water is a combined sewer outflow (CSO) for the city – thanks to an engineering plan deemed both state of the art back in 1857. In fact, there are 11 of these outfalls that deliver sewage into the canal when rainwater is high, “dumping almost four hundred million gallons of wastewater into the canal every year,” writes Joseph Alexiou in Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal.
1861 was the first recorded legal complaint regarding the smell of the Gowanus Canal and its adverse health effects. Historically, the sewers used to get so backed up that by the 1870s that “sandbars of human waste” appeared along the canal, both a public health issue and navigation problem. In 1908, a test determined that the Gowanus Canal contained 625,000 bacteria per cubic meter (legally swimmable water in New York State can contain maximum 24 bacteria per cubic meter). Today, pollution continues to be an issue with high levels of nitrates, presence of toxins like mercury, lead and and PCBs, and bacteria. It even tested positive for typhoid, cholera and gonorrhea in the recent past.