Is G’point good for you?

for The Brooklyn Paper
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A recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency suggests that the infamous Newtown Creek oil spill may well be much larger than the 17-million gallons spilled by the Exxon Valdez (“Bigger than the Exxon Valdez!”) in 1979.

Neighborhood and media reaction to the report, however, suggest that the hysteria (“Leaking toxins into homes!”) over the spill may also be several times larger than previously thought.

Before you grab a pitchfork, torch and Erin Brockovich and descend upon my Greenpoint home, let me make it clear that I, too, am angry about the spill, which apparently extends to within a few blocks of where I have raised two children and countless tomatoes. I’m also livid over the government inaction that has produced such a slow and inadequate cleanup. (Further disclosure: I have not joined any of the spill-related lawsuits now under way.)

My problem is all the crazy, overblown speculation that the oil spill is causing cancer, asthma and other horrible diseases (“Cancer cluster!”). We Greenpointers have a well-earned reputation for losing it and overreacting when feeling put upon by the powerful — remember the demolition of the gas tanks in 2001? Perhaps what is needed here is calm consideration of some facts.

So I sat down and read the 85-page EPA report, which begins by pointing out that the biggest environmental threat to Newtown Creek is not oil seepage, but the Newtown Creek sewage treatment plant, the outflow from which (“Zero oxygen!”) is making an ecological comeback for the creek a long shot.

On the topic of the health consequences to people of exposure to petroleum products, the report states:

“There are four possible primary public health exposure routes that are typically associated with petroleum spills: Vapor intrusion from the chemicals found in petroleum; contaminated drinking water wells that provide a public drinking water source; ingestion of fish from contaminated waters or food products made from or with the contaminated waters; and/or dermal contact from seeps which transport the petroleum to either the surface soil or surface waters.”

As we do not drink from, swim in, or eat seafood (“Mutant fish!”) caught in Newtown Creek, we only have to worry about the first route.

The good news in a recent Department of Environmental Conservation report that tested residential blocks above the spill area is that there is no evidence of either oil or dangerous vapors seeping up into people’s homes. This stands to reason, as the spilled oil tends to lie deep underground, capped by a nearly impermeable layer of clay.

To consider the question from another direction: what diseases are known to be caused by exposure to petroleum products and are these diseases common in Greenpoint?

The main danger in crude oil and associated vapors is benzene, which can cause leukemia and other cancers. The state Department of Health maintains a cancer registry that is broken down by city, borough and neighborhood. According to the most recent statistics, Greenpoint has a lower incidence of cancer than New York State and New York City; it is lower than Williamsburg and most surrounding neighborhoods — even lower than the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

If you look at leukemia only, the incidence rates in Greenpoint are 10.7 cases per 100,000 males and 4.9 cases per 100,000 females, compared to 12.3 and 7.2 in Williamsburg, 13.4 and 8.8 in the city as a whole, and 16.6 and 10.1 in New York State.

The Department of Health breaks down these numbers for 25 different types of cancer and there is not one category in which Greenpoint is higher, within statistical significance, than the citywide numbers. In other words, none of the types of cancer measured is more common in Greenpoint than in the city as a whole. And you are less likely to get any type of cancer if you live in Greenpoint.

Some have speculated that breathing petroleum vapors causes asthma. Medical science has not established a proven cause for asthma, but let’s look at the statistics anyway. According to the Health Department statistics for the year 2000, in the city as a whole, 6.06 children (14 and under) per 1,000 were hospitalized with asthma. The highest asthma rate for any neighborhood was East Harlem’s 17.18 per 1,000; the lowest rate was Borough Park’s 1.31 per 1,000. Brooklyn’s overall rate was 5.45. The rate for Williamsbu­rg/Bushwick was 9.89.

What about Greenpoint? It was 2.08 asthma hospitalizations per 1,000 — the second-lowest rate in Brooklyn and one of the lowest neighborhood rates in the city.

Does this really prove that living in Greenpoint is good for you? Possibly not, but neither is there any real evidence that living here will make you sick — unless you let the hysteria get to you.

Tom Gilbert is a writer and historian who lives in Greenpoint.

The Kitchen Sink

More than 100 people attended a vigil on Union Avenue on Sunday night for Craig Murphey, the cyclist who was killed last Thursday. Murphey, 26, killed when his bicycle collided with a truck last week. He worked with the West Harlem Action Network Against Poverty and founded a scheme to bring fresh produce to low income communities. “He always put people ahead of himself,” a friend Greg Bersnitz, told Metro. “People often talk about doing that. But he lived it.” Following the procession, Murphey’s friends gathered around a ghost bike memorial at Ten Eyck Street and Union Avenue. They laid candles and flowers and told stories about Murphey’s life. …

Schneider Children’s Hospital, opened a pediatric specialty center in Williamsburg on Oct. 9. The new facility is at 158 Broadway. For more information, call (718) 302-0164. …

Rumor has it that the classic Greenpoint luncheonette on the corner of Nassau Avenue and North Henry Street will soon be taken over by the Dumont empire …

The other night I saw Allan Gilbert (no relation) catch an amazing three stripers in about 45 minutes at the Hunter’s Point fishing pier while we all looked on in awe.

Updated 4:33 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

NY Voter says:
Mr. Gilbert's story has restored my faith in the free press. Facts trumping hype, finally. The only additional information that I wish the article would have touched on is the horrendous lies being spread about Greenpoint by elected officials. Greed and corruption are nothing new in politics, but when it reveals itself, it should be exposed. Here's to you Senator Chuck Schumer, Congresswoman Velazquez, Congressman Anthony Weiner and Councilman David Yassky. For how you lied about the findings in the EPA report to smear this fantastic neighborhood. Your horrific and corrupt behavior needs now to be revealed to the wider public so everyone will know that you are unfit for public service.
Oct. 25, 2007, 7:52 pm
Galway says:
What about the effects of breathing the horrible stench from the treatment plant? Is that smell bad for our lungs? Is it affecting my 7 month old son?
Oct. 26, 2007, 8:30 am
Greenpointer says:
The smells, according to the DEP will go away after the plant upgrade is complete. This has happened at other plants during upgrades. That is no excuse however for spending $3.5 million on a nature walk behind the plant in an area that is completely remote from the residential community.
Oct. 26, 2007, 11:53 am
Bburger says:
The smells you should worry about are the smells of oil in Williamsburg along Roebling Street where a massive underground oil spill has been discovered south of McCarren Park. This probably comes from the Williamsburg Bayside Fuel Site which used to be Astral Oil. They are actually building luxury condos on top of the spill in Williamsburg.
Oct. 26, 2007, 11:56 am
Michael Heimbinder says:
Tom, it's interesting to hear an account of the environmental and health conditions in Greenpoint from someone who has raised a family in the neighborhood. Great article. However, I would like to make one important correction. You state that the "Department of Environmental Conservation report that tested residential blocks above the spill area" found "no evidence of either oil or dangerous vapors seeping up into people’s homes." Unfortunately this is not the case. It is true that the DEC vapor intrusion study did not find hazardous vapors in people's homes associated with the oil spill (e.g. benzene & methane). However, they did find hazardous vapors in 8 out of the 52 homes tested, that's 15% of the homes. In 6 of these homes they found elevated levels of chlorinated solvents, such as perchloroethylene, and in 2 of the homes DEC found such a laundry list of hazardous vapors that they did not even bother listing them in their oral report to the community. If you would like more information regarding these findings you can contact me at mheimbinder(at) Thanks again for the interesting article.
Oct. 27, 2007, 1:11 pm
greenengineer from Greenpoint says:
I have been living in Greenpoint for several years now. I have to drink bottled water in Greenpoint because when drinking water from the tap, I get a stomach ache each time! This has never happened in any other neighborhood in New York where I lived, nor does it happen when I drink bottled water.

I can't help but wonder if some of the petroleum that has pervaded every underground surface in this neighborhood has also seeped into the water supply.

It would be great to see some reports on the water quality and stomach cancer rates in Greenpoint.
March 5, 2008, 9:45 am
Jonah from Greenpoint says:

The first thing you have to admit is that they know nothing. I find it an act of enormous hubris for the report to say that benzene gas may be "capped by impenetrable clay."
Read this report and tell me that it does not worry you in the slightest that we are living on a time bomb:,_Charles_(2000)_Tunnel_Vision_-_Subterranean_Paradise_or_Name_That_Quake.htm

I do not trust this report, not because I am paranoid, but because they have a vested interest in slowing the panic that would result in the truth. The cancer rates you refer to, that Greenpoint miraculously has the lowest cancer rates does not mean that contaminants are not hurting our neighbors. We simply do not understand where this oil is or how it is moving beneath the earth's surface. Benzene, as it is a hydrocarbon, will tend to rise. It will not going to remain in a hole. It is quite possible that there are pockets of benzene in other areas. One could almost worry MORE that we haven't seen higher cancer rates in Greenpoint. It may not be a question of where, or why, but when.

Greenpoint is currently tied up in a massive amount of expansion. Unions, banks, oil corporations, and the interests of extremely wealthy people, not to mention political careers, are currently tied up in the oilspill. To be so nonchalant, based on singular environmental report (previous reports have been quite simply WRONG), I believe is a mistake.
April 23, 2008, 3:15 pm
Jason from Greenpoint says:
The Valdez spill happened in 1989, not 1979.
Sept. 3, 2010, 7:46 am
Lurlene from windsor terrace says:
We lived in Greenpoint for a year, down wind of the Newtown Creek, up the block from a plastics factory and on top of an oil spill. I was infertile and sick with respiratory illnesses the whole time we lived there. I even went through fertility treatments. This is after having conceived normally, having two children previous to moving there. I conceived without medical intervention two months after moving from Greenpoint. I also have not had any respiratory issues since.
I don't need a study to tell me that Greenpoint is toxic. I lived it.
Sept. 15, 2010, 6:44 pm
GPoint Andy from GreenPoint says:
What about the schools in and around the Area. They have been digging up McCarren Park. Has this released anything in the air that people living around the park and sending their kids to school that border the Park. What of all the construction that has taken place over the last 6 years. Did the destruction of these old factories and renovation of some expose new toxins into the air. As the NYC Department of Education is now dealing with PCPs in lighting fixtures in what is an inadequate manner, how do you think they will deal with the questions being asked about toxic air and soil and Cancer Clusters in Greenpoint. Also above someone quoted asthma statistics for Bushwick and Williamsburg together. Look I know Statistics, why do you think they did that---I wonder what the stats for Williamsburg would have been. Please don't allow yourself to be naive. I know the area well and I know of the cancer deaths. I am no longer in the neighborhood and I will never return. I do care about those still there and especially the children and pregnant mothers. The Greenpoint Cancer Cluster Toxic Spill will only get worse as the area gets more densely populated and I believe we will get our first real shock when birth defects start to show the problems. You want to get scared look at the scary birth defects you see in the rats that crawl on the subway tracks and in the garbage on the streets.

Move Now
Feb. 24, 2011, 7:53 pm
GPoint Andy from GreenPoint says:
Interesting thought on the Toxic Spill, Cancer Cluster in Gpt and Wmbg. I have observed some scary birth defects in many of the large rats one sees on the subway tracks in the area and in the garbage on the street.
Interesting study for a university or lab to undertake. Trap some of these and other subterranean species and study what nature is showing us about the toxicity of the area. Then, compare that data to other areas in the city. I think there is little doubt that rats in Greenpoint and Williamsburg are being affected.
GPpoint Andy
Feb. 24, 2011, 7:59 pm

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