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Activist Plans To Swim Super-Polluted Gowanus Canal For Earth Day

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- With Earth Day coming up Wednesday, an environmental activist plans to swim the disgustingly toxic Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.

As CBS2's Dave Carlin reported, federal agencies and health experts warned that Christopher Swain's swim could land him in the hospital. But he said he is going to do it anyway.

"I'm going to swim the entire length of the Gowanus Canal," Swain said.

Christopher Swain said he is an activist who paddles as he protests. And for Earth Day, he will undertake the unthinkable swim.

Everyone is told never to swim in the Gowanus, ever. The Gowanus is a Superfund site, and in 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called the canal "one of the most contaminated water bodies in the nation."

The contaminants include all manner of scary chemicals, regional EPA administrator Judith Enck said in a 2013 report.

"There's a whole witches' brew of contaminants in the bottom of the Gowanus Canal. It's heavy metals such as lead and mercury, PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and a lot of coal tar," Enck said in 2013, in announcing a massive cleanup project.

But dredging for that cleanup project has not begun. And on top of the dangerous chemicals, the canal also has dead bodies, bodily fluids, guns, and disease-causing microbes, Carlin reported.

But Swain knows he is going against advice, calling the canal "spiked with everything -- every kind of toxin chemical and metal that we've been able to produce in the last 150 years, 200 years. Still, I want to do it."

Swain's 1.8-mile swim begins where Douglas Street dead-ends in to the canal, and ends near New York Harbor where the canal empties.

The Gowanus Canal swim is an encore to Swain's Hudson River swim in 2004.

Just like that time, Swain will have a team in a boat alongside him. And he will wear this puncture-proof, dry suit.

The protective suit means no Gowanus water will touch his skin from the neck down. For his face, he takes other precautions.

"I'll wear goggles. I'll wear a cap. I'll wear ear plugs. But past that, I'll have some exposed skin, so I'll cover that with water barrier cream," Swain said.

But Dr. Robert Glatter of Lenox Hill Hospital said Swain's swim is still a bad idea.

"This, again, is one of the most dangerous moves that I can imagine," Glatter said. "I think he really needs to reconsider."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also advised against Swain's swim, tweeting:

"What lives in the Gowanus is the most toxic bath of chemicals you can imagine," Glatter added.

Michelle Harvey of Midwood, Brooklyn said she would never make such a swim, but was encouraging toward Swain.

"You're brave man -- good luck," Harvey said. "I think we'll probably stop by to see you do it."

Swain said most of all, he is looking forward to a day when the Gowanus is clean and safe.

"What I'm imagining is not so much what this one swim will do, but I'm imagining the dream of the Gowanus Canal that's glittering in the sun; that's completely clean," he said.

Swain said he won't back down, hoping this swim starts conversations that ultimately speed up the cleanup.

The $506 million cleanup project is expected to take more than a decade to finish.

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