Newtown Creek: Health Effects on Nearby Residents

By Yan Davydov

Newtown Creek, a murky green and brown waterway located directly between Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Long Island City, Queens, has been the illegal dumpsite for countless tons of industrial and residential waste since the mid-19th Century. Since then, Newtown Creek has become the most polluted waterway in America, even though it is right in our own backyard.

Newtown Creek holds this record because it contains the largest variety and quantity of contaminants, all of which settle together at the bottom of the creek to form what is believed to be a 15-foot-thick stagnant mix known as “black mayonnaise” at the bottom.

This black mayonnaise mix is composed of concentrations of mercury, a record 17 million tons of leaked petroleum oil, tons of raw sewage, metal compounds, coal tar, pesticides, industrial waste from factories and shipyards that used to operate on the waterfront, and even rotting animal carcasses from a 19th Century Jell-O gelatin factory.

Unfortunately, the pollution problem is an old and seemingly irresolvable one because proper treatment is slow in coming. An article in The New York Times, dated December 12, 1894, declares “Five Factories Ordered Closed” and “Gov. Flower Says that Newtown Creek Must Be Purified.” Keep in mind that this article was published more than one hundred years ago, and yet Newtown Creek remains incredibly polluted.

Although many more of the factories have since closed down and been replaced by the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, the plant can only treat new sewage and waste. In other words, the 15-plus feet of stagnant black mayonnaise at the bottom of the creek cannot be cleaned out simply by pouring treated water into the creek.

Another shortcoming of the purification plant is that it is only as effective as the weather is good. If, for example, it rains in New York, the plant overflows and out of necessity spills out untreated excess sewage and rain water right into Newtown Creek, which only further contributes to the Creek’s pollution and odor.

Local fireman Steve I., 56, who has been at his ladder located on the waterfront for more than a decade, has a clear view of the plant every morning. He said in an interview that, “in the summer months, when the air doesn’t move much, the smell hit’s you pretty hard, like, [fart noise].” His partner, Mike K., age 54, admits that all he knows about the creek is that “it smells, and it’s really polluted… but I haven’t given much thought about it and my health, though.”

Other locals, on the other hand, feel that health ailments due to living near Newtown Creek are imminent. “Well, I’m pretty sure we’re all going to develop cancer in a few decades,” said Williamsburg resident Noah K., 28, calmly. He and his friends, Eric L., 21, and Morgan L., 22, spent the day on the Waterfront Nature Walk that was built in 2007 along the creek, as they often do. They seem to love the neighborhood too much to be worried.

Similarly, Mr. Ricardo R., age 46, was bicycling from his home in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn and ended up at the Waterfront Nature Walk. “I noticed the smell as soon as I reached the bike ramp,” said Ricardo R. He wanted to scope out Newtown Creek and the Waterfront Nature Walk  area as a potential bike route. Like many non-locals, he was not prepared for the stench and filth of the water. “I’m not personally worried about any health problems for me, and I’ll definitely be coming back around here from time to time just to check up on the progress of the cleaning efforts,” finished Ricardo R.

In actuality, the relationship between living near Newtown Creek and long term health effects such as cancer are relatively unknown. While studies performed by the Department of Health do show that there is a 25% increase in asthma, emphysema and bronchitis rates in Newtown and nearby neighborhoods than in the rest of the city, there haven’t been many studies done on long term illness connections.

That’s where Rachel Weiss, 29, and the Newtown Creek Alliance, come in. Weiss, who was unavailable for an interview, was granted $46,000 earlier this year from the government in order to investigate the relationship between the pollution and local residents’ health woes, which is the first direct study of its kind.

An April 2009 article from the Queen’s Chronicle managed to interview Weiss and quoted her as saying, “I got this sense that people had these stories [pets dying, family members with cancer] and they were frustrated.”

Weiss’s colleague, Teresa Toro, was also interviewed in the article and added that the study “has no predetermined notions of what it will find; rather, [we] want to see what rises to the surface. It may be something as big as noticing a high number of cancers, or something smaller like identifying strange smells at certain times of the day.”

The hope is that after the NCA’s study, which has not yet been released, conclusive data of detrimental health effects will prompt the Environmental Protection Agency to approve Newtown Creek as a superfund site, making it eligible for millions in government dollars towards effective and thorough clean up.

Whatever correlations may be discovered by Weiss and the NCA, the fact remains that Newtown Creek is in desperate need of purification and rejuvenation.

On-site Primary Sources:

1. Firemen Steve I., 56, and Mike K., 54

2. Williamsburg residents Eric L., 21,

Morgan L., 22, and Noah K., 28

3. Bicyclist Ricardo R., 46

Potential Source who has yet to reply:

1. Rachel Weiss, 29, (718) 577-1359,

Link to study at:

Secondary Sources: