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.
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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.