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Man Swims in Toxic Gowanus Canal for Earth Day

Today, activist Christopher Swain swam what is possibly the dirtiest waterway in the entire United States: Brooklyn’s Gownaus Canal.

The Gowanus Canal is infamous for its toxicity, having been named a Superfund site in 2010. It is full of industrial waste, fuel slicks, sewage, and trash. According to the EPA, contaminants include PCBs, coal tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics.

But Swain was undeterred, and swam half the length of the 1.8 mile Gowanus canal while wrapped in a yellow drysuit and exposure protection gear.

Swain has been swimming and documenting dirty waterways since 1996. As Swain’s website notes, the point is “to put threatened waterways squarely in the public eye, and to support protection, restoration, and education efforts.” His swim is meant to call for an accelerated cleanup of the Canal.

Many expressed horror at Swain’s actions on twitter:

But Swain explained his rationale to CBS News:

“People tell me I’m crazy, right? You know, they say, ‘You’re crazy for swimming the Gowanus Canal,’ and I say ‘You know what’s crazy? What’s crazy is how messed up this is,'” he said, referring to the waterway’s condition. “It’s everything from sewage, to oil and gas slicks, to coal tar residue bubbling up, and then if you look at the sludge at the bottom of the canal 10-20 feet of mud spiked with everything, every kind of toxic chemical and metal that we’ve been able to produce in the last 150 years 200 years.”

The EPA has a terrifying factsheet that warns of all the horrible things you may be exposed to if you come into direct contact with Gowanus canal water…including possible exposure to sewage:

“The risks from direct contact with Canal water identified in EPA’s Remedial Investigation are from exposure to toxic chemicals – primarily Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. There is also a risk from exposure to elevated levels of pathogens (bacteria); these are most commonly associated with sewage discharges from Combined Sewer Overflows during a rainstorm.”

As City Lab notes, keeping safe in the Gowanus canal will be no small task:

“Swain’s mouth will be open very close to the foul surface of the canal. Because of that, he will gargle with a hydrogen peroxide solution periodically, and plans to swallow an activated charcoal tablet if he accidentally swallows a mouthful of the Gowanus.”

But Swain was undeterred, and at 2:00pm EST on Earth Day, jumped in to the Gowanus Canal:

Some onlookers were horrified:

Others cheered:

And reporters reminded those following #GownusSwim on twitter of the dangers of ingesting Gowanus water:

Swain continued his swim:

He took a break about halfway through to gargle hydrogen peroxide:

And then ended the swim a bit early due to impending thunderstorms:

Swain had a pretty stunning description of what Gowanus water tastes like:

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