Come on in, the canal water is fine!
A water sample taken the day an aquatic activist plunged willingly into the murky depths of the Gowanus Canal showed bacteria levels the city would consider safe for swimming, according to the amateur marine biologist who tested the fetid fluid.
“I don’t think he was really at risk of anything,” said Rob Buchanan, who is member of the Water Trail Association, a group that regularly tests the canal and other city waterways during the spring and summer. “No statistician would want to base a decision off of one sample, but based on what was in the bottle, the water was swimmable.”
Health and environmental agencies determine the levels of sewage in bodies of water by the presence of a bacteria called enterococcus, Buchanan explained. The Department of Health, which is in charge of testing water at public swimming beaches like Coney Island, will generally close the beach if the eneterococcus levels are higher than 105 units per 100 milliliters. But Buchanan said his Canal sample, which he took several hours before Christopher Swain paddled the pungent waterway on April 22, showed only 31 units.
Buchanan admits the sample was below average for the Gowanus Canal, which sometimes registers bacteria levels three or four times higher than what the city considers unsafe for swimming. But it is also common for canal water to show low sewage levels, he said, as the amount of poop in the so-called Lavender Lake can rise and fall depending on variables like recent rainfall.
Of course, there are other dangers lurking in the canal. It is still teeming with heavy metals, contaminated marine life, and colonies of gonorrhea. And the Environmental Protection Agency famously called on Swain to abandon his swim due to the potential health risks. But Buchanan said Brooklyn’s nautical purgatory still isn’t quite as dangerous as most people believe.
“People sort of let their imaginations run wild when it comes to the Gowanus,” he said. “Everyone imagines the worst liquid on Earth, but sometimes it is technically swimmable.”
Two days after his historic swim, Swain was living — and breathing — proof that on a good day, a dip in the canal won’t kill you, and it might not even make you sick.
“It was not as bad as it could have been,” said Swain, who reported tasting mud, poop, and gasoline when he emerged from the water. “I’m happy and healthy, which I think makes some people almost disappointed.”