Toxic Splendor on the Gowanus Canal

On days when the breeze blows along the Gowanus Canal and brings with it a particularly acrid and pungent smell, visitors to the polluted body of water will discover an unexpected and stunning sight. The smell is due to high concentrations of chemicals leaching out into the water that produce a kind of flowing splendor from the canal’s industrial past. During these moments when the chemicals start leaking again the canal can seem like a flowing impressionistic masterpiece. But these brilliant colors kill most life that it comes into contact with. The materials used to produce flowing canvas are cancerous polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls and heavy metals, including mercury, lead and copper, that are found at high levels in the sediment in the Canal which eventually empty out into New York’s Lower Bay and then the Atlantic Ocean.

Now a superfund site the Canal was built in the mid 1800s and was an important transportation link for boats that would connect what was manufactured along the canal to the rest of the world. Along the canal were manufactured gas plants, paper mills, tanneries and chemical plants operated along the Canal and discharged wastes into it. It is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States.


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