Gowanus Canal Fact Sheet, December 2011

The New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH) and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) are preparing a Public Health Assessment (PHA) document for the Gowanus Canal National Priority List (NPL) site. This fact sheet provides basic information about the NYS DOH and ATSDR and their upcoming public health activities for the Gowanus Canal investigation.

What is the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry?

The ATSDR is a federal environmental public health agency that is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. The agency's mission is to serve the public through responsive public health actions to promote healthy and safe environments and prevent harmful exposures. ATSDR works with communities, environmental groups, tribal governments and local, state, and other federal agencies to provide comprehensive environmental public health services.

Since 1987, the ATSDR has had a cooperative agreement with the NYS DOH to conduct site-specific work. Under this agreement, ATSDR works closely with the NYS DOH to carry out its mission of serving the public by using the best available science, taking responsive public health actions, and providing trusted health information to prevent harmful exposure and disease related to toxic substances.

What is a Public Health Assessment?

A Public Health Assessment reviews available information about hazardous substances at a site (in this case the Gowanus Canal NPL site) and evaluates whether exposure to them might cause any harm to people. NYS DOH and ATSDR conduct a Public Health Assessment for every site on or proposed for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) NPL, also known as the federal Superfund list. Public Health Assessments consider:

  • What the levels (or "concentrations") of hazardous substances are in a variety of environmental media (for example - water, air, sediment, fish);
  • Whether people might be exposed to contamination and how (through "exposure pathways" such as breathing air, drinking or contacting water, contacting or eating soil, or eating food);
  • What harm the substances might cause to people (or the contaminants' "toxicity");
  • Whether working or living nearby might affect people's health;
  • Other dangers to people, such as unsafe buildings, hazards in the water, or other physical hazards.

To make those determinations, NYS DOH and ATSDR look at:

  • Environmental data, such as information about the contaminants and how people could come in contact with them, and
  • Community concerns.

A Public Health Assessment recommends ways to protect public health. For example, recommendations might be made for how people can avoid or reduce exposures, or that some critical but missing data needs to be obtained to assist with further evaluation.

Before the Public Health Assessment document is finished, it is made available to the community for their review during the Public Comment Period. The Public Comment Period lets the community tell NYS DOH and ATSDR how well the Public Health Assessment addresses their concerns. NYS DOH and ATSDR respond to the public's comments in the final Public Health Assessment document.

What is the difference between the NYS DOH/ ATSDR Public Health Assessment and the USEPA Remedial Investigation and Risk Assessment reports?

The USEPA performed a risk assessment as part of their recently completed Remedial Investigation and Risk Assessment reports for Gowanus Canal. The USEPA Remedial Investigation report presents all of the environmental data that was collected during the site investigation. The risk assessment was done to determine the human health and ecological risks from exposure to contamination in the canal. The results of the risk assessment will be used by the USEPA to determine appropriate cleanup strategies for the Gowanus Canal site to ensure overall protection of human health and the environment.

As part of the Public Health Assessment process, the NYS DOH and ATSDR will use the available information for the Gowanus Canal site, including information from the USEPA Remedial Investigation and Risk Assessment reports, to determine if public health actions are needed at a site and if so, identify what appropriate actions should be taken by the community, USEPA, state and local governments and/or the responsible parties.

Next Steps

The NYS DOH and ATSDR are currently reviewing the USEPA Draft Gowanus Canal Remedial Investigation and Risk Assessment reports released in January 2011. The NYS DOH and ATSDR will be incorporating any new data relevant to the public health evaluation for the Gowanus Canal site into a draft Public Health Assessment document. The NYS DOH and ATSDR are expecting this additional review will take several months to complete and will be notifying the public when the draft Public Health Assessment document is available for public review and comment.

Contacts for more information about the Gowanus Canal PHA:

Christopher Doroski
New York State Department of Health
Center for Environmental Health
Leah Graziano
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Region 2 Office, Edison, NJ

For general information on ATSDR and PHAs, visit ATSDR online at www.atsdr.cdc.gov