This Man Was Crazy Enough To Swim In One Of America’s Most Polluted Waterways

An activist takes a bath in Brooklyn’s toxic Gowanus Canal to draw attention to centuries of neglect. Spoiler: He didn’t die (yet).

Call him foolish, call him courageous, Chris Swain did finally swim in the Gowanus Canal.


After an hour-plus delay, during which it seemed the NYPD might put a stop to his mission, the adventure-swimmer lowered himself into the green-tinged murk.

“This is arguably the most polluted body of water in North America,” he said a few minutes earlier. “I don’t think anyone has ever stood next to the Gowanus Canal and said I want to swim there.”

Ben Schiller for Fast Company

Exactly. Why would you want to swim the Gowanus, in Brooklyn? Obviously not for splash-about pleasure. All of New York knows how polluted the place is. Lavender Lake, they call it, for its strange color. Scientists who have analyzed its contents have found a who’s who of dangerous elements and compounds there, including PCBs, volatile organics, cyanide, asbestos, enterococci bacteria, and, perhaps, gonorrhea. Yes, Swain could be about to swallow the clap.

Swain did have a point to his swim though: to draw attention to the water quality. And, his gambit seemed to be paying off. At the start, on Degraw Street, perhaps 100 people were there to see him off. Many more journalists, photographers, and locals hung from bridges along the route, which would take Swain all the way to New York Harbor (about 1.8 miles in all). The stunt was generating lots of publicity.

“What all this tells me is that there is hope,” he said. “People do wish it was better.”

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the Gowanus a Superfund site. It has a plan to dredge up 600,000 cubic yards of grunge, in hopes of taking away most of the pollution (there’s so much coal waste the EPA hopes to make energy from it). But Swain argues that’s only half the issue. The Gowanus is also used as an overflow pipe for the New York’s old sewage system. So, on top of the PCBs, there’s plenty of human waste as well: 377 million diluted gallons of it, according to the city.


Swain, though, was not to be deterred. Clad in an ultra-thick, many-layered yellow suit, he was confident that nothing toxic would touch his skin. If, somehow, water entered his mouth, he’d gargle with hydrogen peroxide solution and take some activated charcoal tablets to trap chemicals before they spread through his body.

The suit, he said, was a “hydrodynamic disaster,” a nightmare for swimming in, and very hot. But it was better than tangling with 200 years of industrial negligence. Anything would be better than that.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.