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Toxic Water Affects Air at Newtown Creek

aeration project-Newtown Creek

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Study shows City needs to reassess cleanup plan

For several years, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been aerating English Kills, the most polluted section of Newtown Creek, in order to increase oxygen levels to acceptable standards, which is crucial to a water body’s health. Soon, the city plans to expand this process throughout the rest of the creek.

A new study published in Environmental Science and Technology, shows the city’s aeration technique is releasing bacteria and other particles into the air above Newtown Creek and found bacteria types in the air consistent with the sewage and oil pollution in the creek. The study is one of the first to establish a link between water pollution and air-quality, raising new questions about the health risks posed by dirty water. The study of airborne bacteria at the site is part of a long-term collaboration between Riverkeeper and scientists at Lamont-Doherty and Queens College to monitor water quality in the Hudson River and its watershed.

Riverkeeper raised concerns when the city proposed aerating the rest of the creek last spring and asked the DEP to test for pathogens and sewage associated bacteria in the air, which they did not agree to do. Aeration creates bubbles on the water’s surface and is a Band Aid solution to the underlying serious problem of combined sewage overflows. Low oxygen conditions in the creek occur due to sewage contamination and although aeration increases the oxygen level in the water, it does not reduce the amount of sewage or sewage associated bacteria that are dumped into the creek. Riverkeeper has argued that aeration is an ineffective way of addressing the pollution problem and the recent study suggests that it may also negatively impact local air-quality.

This study’s finding are of broader importance in demonstrating that what’s in the water affects what’s in the air, and not only where aeration is occurring. This connection of water and air-quality should be considered for all heavily polluted waterways and suggests that an investment in water quality may also be an investment in air quality in the urban environment.

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