Gowanus Canal Toxicity

When it rains, we watch the streets fill into a dark river, pouring into the storm drains. Everyday, we flush toilets. Or the toilet flushes by itself, sometimes more than once, automated so that we don’t even have the chance to think about it. Where does sewage water go? As the water spirals down the drain, its memory is also washed away. Out of sight, out of mind. The underground, unseen world of tunnels do have a destination. Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t always lead to some type of treatment facility. The water pollution at the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn faces a massive challenge that runs deeper than the toxicity of rainwater and human waste.

The Gowanus Canal has been a polluted cesspool for decades, having served as a dumping ground for companies during the industrial era. There have been several attempts at lessening the pollution and cleaning up the sludge, though all have failed to drive a significant change in water quality. Its proximity to Manhattan and upper-class Brooklyn neighborhoods attracted concerns for waterfront cleanup and redevelopment. In 2009, the canal was declared a Superfund site by the federal government. Local residents protested this decision out of fear that the toxic waste bubbling in the canal would instead be displaced onto nearby public areas, and the process would take too long. The Gowanus Canal’s toxic sediment layer averages 10 feet thick, and at some points reaches 20 feet. These conditions harm humans through air pollution and water contact, potentially leading to serious illness in the population that are in regular contact with the area. A decade has passed since being named a Superfund site and finally, there is substantial progress being made. On January 28, 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an official order to begin the first phase of the $506 million cleanup. Many environmental specialists expect the project to cost much more.

In researching about the Gowanus Canal, it seems that the affect toward its cleanup is weak. Teresa Brennan says that the transmission of affect captures “a process that is social in origin but biological and physical in effect.” Many people near the canal have been worn down by the years of negligence shown toward the mucky green waters. There is transmission by which people become alike whereby “one person’s nervous and hormonal systems are brought into alignment with another’s.” These feelings of affect can be developed within a community unconsciously through shared sensory experiences. Brennan is confident that “smell is critical in how we feel the atmosphere.” The devastating smell permeating the air in the summertime has fostered indifference toward the scent. This small detail along with many other factors have shifted the attitude of local residents, unaware of the toxic dangers the canal harbors.


Nosowitz, Dan. “What Would Happen If You Drank Water From The Gowanus Canal?” Popular Science, Popular Science, 18 Mar. 2019, http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-08/fyi-what-would-happen-if-you-drank-water-gowanus-canal/.

“The Transmission of Affect.” The Transmission of Affect, by Teresa Brennan, Cornell University Press, 2004.

~ by itsjacchang on February 17, 2020.

One Response to “Gowanus Canal Toxicity”

  1. Great job contextualizing this issue! It really helps unearth this issue’s part in more structural issues of the city!

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