Angry Toxicologist

The NYTimes reports today that the Charles River is clean enough to swim in. Well, sort of. Caveats:

No diving…lest that stir up the toxic sediment at the bottom of the river.

Do not expect to see the river bottom. The water is too murky.

Be prepared to encounter bits of flotsam and jetsam.

Toxic sediment? Doesn’t sound so good to me. I’d like to know more about the toxic sediment and how this river has been cleaned up. You too? Well, you’re out of luck because the rest of the article is largely devoid of any facts (other than the helpful fact that the river which once got a ‘D’ now gets a ‘B+’), and those it has are largely anecdotal or not related to actual safety. It does note that a swimming beach can’t be opened because of the sediment, without any more info on what the problems are. It’s not clear from the EPA what the sediment problems are either, although in the water they do find “carbamazepine (anti-seizure drug), diazepam (muscle relaxant), dilantin (anti-convulsant drug), gemfibrozil (lipid regulator), meprobamate (anti-anxiety drug), and oxybenzone (sun screen).” Hey, hey, lower your cholesterol and become very relaxed by a dip in the Charles river! .

The most irritating thing about this article is that it keeps the notion that you can tell whether a river is safe or not by looking at it:

“I’ll tell you, I’ve swum races in the Hudson, the East River and the Harlem River, and this is just as clean as them.”

And Sebastian Neumayer, 24, who won the race with a time of 21 minutes and 37 seconds, pronounced the mid-70-degree water just fine.

“I didn’t see any mattresses,” he said, “so it’s all good.”

And I’ll tell you this: It’s not all good. I’ll take the most opaque, muddy, mattress-filled, but toxics-free river over a clear river with toxic sediment any day.

PS I’ll admit that, sadly, the Charles has become probably the cleanest urban river in the US. That’s not saying much, though.


  1. #1 Jim Lemire
    July 23, 2007

    are all these drugs there via the urine of people taking them or directly dumped into the river or from some point source leaching into the water or…?

  2. #2 Wilfred
    July 23, 2007

    How do the american rivers compare to the european ones? Does anyone know? Then I would have some comparison.

  3. #3 angrytoxicologist
    July 24, 2007

    Both. A large source is actually the dumping of meds from hospitals and nursing homes that can’t be used for one reason or another (the amount of narcotics alone going down the drains at such places is insane). It’s probably largely from urine and feces though. Mmmm…

    I can’t compare to most of Europe that well. I do know that the rivers here are compareable to the problems in Italy. Other than that…

  4. #4 Lepht
    July 24, 2007

    Wilfred: whatever America’s got, the Thames will top. believe me.


  5. #5 Pygmy Loris
    July 24, 2007

    How does the Charles compare to the Mississippi or Illinois? I’ve been swimming in both of those (north of St. Louis), but I didn’t check to see if they were toxic. Now I think I probably should have checked, oops.

  6. #6 Rio Iriri
    July 31, 2007

    One of the debate points regarding dredging the Hudson to remove PCBs is the argument that it would stir up settled PCBs and put them back into the water column–some felt it was better to leave them there, where they would (potentially) only affect benthic organisms.

    Of course, dredging out what’s in there doesn’t do any good if they aren’t identifying and cleaning up the sites that are leaking PCBs into the groundwater near the Hudson anyway–you dredge ’em out, and more gets pulled into the river via the groundwater to be dredged out in another 10-15 years.

    There are some clever solutions that involve drilling wells near a dump site that can’t be located, and if PCBs are detected in the groundwater, to pump groundwater out of the well, centrifuge it so the PCBs settle and can be collected, and return the water in a separate location. The idea is to pump it fast enough to resist the river’s pull on the groundwater.

    Anyway, not that it completely relates, but cleaning up a polluted river is so hard 🙁 Not everyone agrees how to do it.

    With that said, have you read Zodiac by Neal Stephenson? It is an interesting novel about PCB pollution, and a key element is the introduction of a genetically engineered PCB-eating bacteria species. I thought it was science fiction, but one of my college chem professors had actually worked for GE as part of the team to develop such a bacterium–and I guess it worked. They decided not to use it, I guess there was too much uncertainty about what it would do if it mutated or whatnot. But it was really neat to hear about it–I live right in the heart of PCB country, in the Albany/Schenectady area, and my ex-husband was a GE employee.

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