PCBs Among Toxins Found in New York’s Gowanus Canal

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has completed its investigation of the Gowanus Canal Superfund site in Brooklyn, N.Y. The investigation confirmed the widespread presence of numerous contaminants, including <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/topics/overview/PCBs_health_concerns">PCBs, identifying the sources of contamination. A companion human and ecological risk assessment found exposure to the contaminants in the canal poses threats to people’s health and the environment.

“The findings of the investigation of the Gowanus Canal confirmed that contamination of the urban waterway is widespread and may threaten people’s health, particularly if they eat fish or crabs from the canal or have repeated contact with the canal water or sediment,” said EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck. “The next step is the review of options for cleaning up the Gowanus, so we can move ahead with a full-scale cleanup of the canal that will result in a revitalized urban waterway.”

EPA’s investigation confirmed the widespread presence of more than a dozen toxins, including PCB contamination. In addition to PCBs, the investigation revealed polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and various metals, including mercury, lead, and copper, at high levels in the sediment in the Gowanus Canal. PAHs and metals were also found in the canal water. PAHs are a group of chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage, or other organic substances.

PCBs were used as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment and are suspected carcinogens; PCB Health Problems also include neurological effects.

The human health risk assessment of the Gowanus Canal found that people are at risk from exposure to PCBs if they consume fish and crabs caught in the canal. People in regular contact with the canal’s water and sediment could be at risk from exposure to PAHs. EPA’s ecological risk assessment revealed that organisms living in the sediment could be at risk because of contamination there, primarily PAHs, but also PCBs and metals. Ducks may be threatened by exposure to PAHs in the canal’s sediment and heron could be at risk from eating contaminated fish.

EPA’s investigation also confirmed that a combination of historical and ongoing sources have contaminated the Gowanus Canal. Past industrial activities along the canal contributed a large amount of contaminants found in layers of sediment below the surface. A number of industrial facilities are among these sources, including three former manufactured gas plant sites along the Gowanus Canal. Uncontrolled discharges of sewage, storm water, and other types of discharges into the Gowanus continue to contaminate the canal.

We recently wrote that General Electric (GE) dumped PCBs into New York’s Hudson River for years. According to the EPA, the site involves some 200 miles from Hudson Falls to New York City’s Battery area. GE dumped somewhere between 209,000 and 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the upper and lower Hudson River from two capacitor manufacturing plants in Hudson Falls and St. Edwards; sediments became contaminated. More exposure occurred when the river’s level was lowered in 1973 and the Fort Edward Dam was removed, said the EPA. The Hudson River is the nation’s largest federal Superfund site.

The EPA also recently added New York City’s Newtown Creek to its Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) of the country’s most hazardous waste sites. The designation allows EPA to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the creek to determine what remedial actions are required. The creek, some four miles in length, divides the NY City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, and is the second active federal Superfund site there, following Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, said the New York Times, previously.

We have also been following the recent discoveries of PCBs in New York City Schools, specifically PCBs in light fixtures, caulking, and floor tiles. EPA believes many schools built in the U.S. before 1979 have light ballasts containing PCBs and have begun—in response to New York City not moving as quickly as it would have liked—to take its own action to better understand the scope of PCBs in New York City schools. A growing number of schools have revealed unacceptable PCB levels in ballasts, caulk, and tiling.

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