Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Christopher Swain takes a break during his Earth Day swim. (Photo: Brooklyn Eagle)

Earth Day Activist Dons Protective Gear to Swim Most Polluted US Waterway

'It tasted like mud, poop, ground-up grass and gasoline,' Christopher Swain said after his swim

Deirdre Fulton

An environmental activist who swims through sewage spills, shark habitats, and shipping lanes in order to "put our waterways squarely in the public eye" took a particularly disgusting dip on Earth Day this year: in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, known as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States.

Christopher Swain, 47, wore a yellow-and-black protective suit, gloves, goggles, and a green swim cap on which he wrote, in black marker, '#HOPE'—and employed what he described as a "modified head-up grandma breaststroke"—to swim about two-thirds of the murky canal on Wednesday.

According to the New York Times, he also plugged his ears and rubbed the exposed skin on his head with a water-repellent lubricant. A volunteer kayaker paddled a few feet away from him, holding a bottle of hydrogen peroxide for him to gargle with whenever his unprotected mouth strayed too close to danger.

That was smart. Since the 19th century, industrial and sewage waste has been spewed into the waterway. As the Times notes, "A 2012 report compiled by the city's Department of Environmental Protection found that the toxic chemicals in the water included copper, lead, mercury, carcinogenic PCBs, DDT and other substances. The water also teems with bacteria and viruses that, depending on the strength of one's immune system, could incite a case of nothing, mild diarrhea, dysentery or worse."

Not surprising, then, that "it tasted like mud, poop, ground-up grass, and gasoline," as Swain told a group of reporters after the swim.

The Environmental Protection Agency has designated the canal, once a major transportation route, a federal Superfund site. Clean-up efforts, which are projected to cost about half a billion dollars, are slated for completion in 2022.

Acknowledging that those working on the clean-up are "actually getting somewhere," Swain remains hopeful that the Canal will someday be swimmable—even without protective gear.

"We put a man on the moon. We split the atom," he said. "We can clean up the Gowanus Canal."

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle created a video about Swain's swim:


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Trump's CIA Considered Kidnapping or Assassinating Assange: Report

"The Biden administration must drop its charges against Assange immediately."

Jake Johnson ·


'Carrying Water for Big Corporations': Sinema Faces Backlash for Opposing Tax Hikes

"Make no mistake, if she sides with her wealthy donors and kills popular investments to jump-start the economy, everyday families—including across Arizona—will pay the price."

Jake Johnson ·


UN Chief Warns Humanity Is 'Unacceptably Close to Nuclear Annihilation'

"Now is the time to lift the cloud of nuclear conflict for good," United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said ahead of the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

Jake Johnson ·


Coalition Slams UN Food Summit for Peddling 'Corporate-Led False Solutions' to Hunger

"The U.N. has finally made it clear what 'multilateralism' is all about—paying lip service to the people while skewing priorities for the interests of imperialists and monopoly capitalists."

Jake Johnson ·


'Political Malpractice': House Democrats' Bill Wouldn't Add Dental to Medicare Until 2028

"I don't want to see it drawn out to as far as the House has proposed," Sen. Bernie Sanders said during a recent press call.

Jake Johnson ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo