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Scientists to Sandy-slammed Brooklynites: Bring out your dirt

Scientists want to examine dirt near Brooklyn waterways that flooded during Hurricane Sandy, including the notoriously filthy Gowanus Canal.
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

If you ever wanted to get the real dirt on Hurricane Sandy’s impact on Brooklyn, here’s your chance.

A pair of upstate chemistry professors are asking Brooklyn residents to send them dirt that was inundated with floodwater during the storm so they can determine how dirty it really is.

Experiment leader and Vassar educator Alison Spodek Keimowitz says the goal of the project is simple: to find out if Sandy’s huge storm surge made soil harmful for human contact.

“My first hope is to be able to reassure people that the dirt is not very contaminated,” said Keimowitz, who is working on the project — dubbed Send Us your Dirt from Sandy, or SUDS — with Marist College professor Neil Fitzgerald. “But if it is contaminated, we’re going to notify agencies like the [Environmental Protection Agency].”

The researchers are urging Brooklynites to gather a sandwich bag worth of soil, label it with cross streets and the name of the nearest body of water, and mail it upstate.

So far, the pair have received about 70 samples, not only from the Brooklyn neighborhoods including Gowanus, Red Hook, and Gerritsen Beach, but also other parts of the city such as the Far Rockaways and Manhattan.

“We weren’t asking them to go into Superfund sites,” said Fitzgerald. “Just to collect what they would come in contact with anyway.”

The unconventional, open-sourced approach to scientific inquiry forces the researchers to sacrifice some control of the experiment — but it helps them take in a large quantity of samples with little time in the field.

“I teach classes, so I can’t run all over getting samples,” said Keimowitz. “Right now, we don’t have the time.”

The researchers have already been inundated with samples from scientists — both amateur and professional — as well as from concerned locavores.

“We got samples from a lot of people involved in community gardening who wanted to know what was in the food they were growing,” said Fitzgerald.

Gowanus resident Eymund Deigel said mailing soil to the upstate scientists will help all Brooklynites gain real understanding about the storm of the century.

“More data means better information and better discussion,” said Deigel. “There’s a lot of paranoia and a lot of people saying nothing happened. The more we know, the more we can actually get things done.”

Would-be scientists can send samples to:

Alison Keimowitz

Chemistry Department

Vassar College

124 Raymond Avenue

Poughkeepsie, NY 12604

Reach reporter Danielle Furfaro at dfurfaro@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2511. Follow her at twitter.com/DanielleFurfaro.

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