Monday, September 26, 2005

Apple #113: Jumping into the Chicago River

The short answer is, don't do it. Here's what happened to one guy who did.

A while back, a Daily Apple reader named Chris, in his boyish curiosity, asked the following:

I pass over the Chicago River every day on my way to work and flirt with the idea of doing a sweeping swan dive off the Wells Street bridge. My questions:

Will I get fined or jailed for doing the dive? And if I do manage to make the leap, what's the likelihood of me getting sick from being immersed in the river?

The El going over the Chicago River on the Wells Street Bridge
Photo from Metros with a View

Of course, any sane apple lady would tell a person not to jump off a bridge. But in this specific case, given what I've learned about the Chicago River, I would say, really, don't jump into that river.

First of all, the health issue. This was easier for me to answer. The State of Illinois, along with such illustrious people as the Lieutenant-Governor and the Friends of the Chicago River, have sworn to "make the Chicago River swimmable by 2020." Think about this for a minute. This initiative started in 2003, which means they're expecting it to take 17 years of concerted efforts to clean up the river before anyone could safely swim in it. This gives you some idea of the state of the river's water quality.

While various points along the river are currently designed for "full immersion uses," the head of the Friends of the Chicago River says, "These stretches now have far too much bacteria."

Over the course of decades, slaughterhouses, tanneries, rolled steel plants, boat manufacturers, lumberyards, and graineries have lined the Chicago River and emptied their waste right into it. There's a photo from 1911 of a stretch of the river that ran next to the stockyards. This stretch was called "Bubbly Creek" because the stockyards used to fling their offal -- yes, that's cow parts -- into the river. As the stuff decomposed, the gases bubbled to the surface, giving it its name. But in this picture, the sewage is so thick, it's crusted over, and a chicken is even standing on top of it. Flash forward 90 years, and this is the river you're considering diving into.

Yes, it's cleaner than it used to be. The City built the Sanitary and Ship Canal, which diverted water from Lake Michigan into the Chicago River at a rate of six billion gallons per day. This huge onrush of water turned the river into the other direction, so that it emptied instead into the Mississippi River. It also flushed out the pollutants into the Mississippi, which drains into the Gulf of Mexico, and hello New Orleans! This cleaned up the river, but then in the 1930s the US government made the city build a dam to slow the river's flow, and that turned it into a sewer pit again. In the 1960s, people started cleaning up the river once more, and there's been quite a bit of progress, but there are still industrial metals trapped in the sediment and bad things in the water, as we'll see.

The Illinois EPA determines whether it's safe to swim in water by the level of fecal coliform bacteria. When it comes to swimmability, they don't test for metals or pesticides, just fecal coliform bacteria. Too much of this, and no swimming is allowed. And the Chicago River has too much. Way too much, judging by the fact that people think it will take seventeen years to get rid of the bacteria. To get technical about it, if more than 200 observations of fecal coliform bacteria are present in 100 ml of water, AND if more than 10% of the samples over a 30-day period contain more than 400 observations per 100 ml, then no swimming is allowed.

People also like to go boating and fishing on the Chicago River. This is called a secondary or recreational use. The Illinois EPA didn't test for this category of use, so I can't say whether it's safe to do that or not.

The Illinois EPA does test to see if it's safe to eat the fish you catch, and if fish can even live in the waters in the first place. These tests are called fish consumption and aquatic use tests. For these assessments, different people use various methods in different parts of the state, but basically they look at the fish to see if they're healthy or diseased, they look at the vegetation on the riverbank to see if that looks good or if it's dying, they look at the number of bugs in the river mud, and they test the water chemistry. It's in these assessments that you get records of heavy metals, pesticides, oil and grease, mining runoff, stuff like that.

They evaluate the Chicago River and Calumet Basin as one area and here's how it scored:

Aquatic Life -- Poor
This means that it would be difficult for aquatic life to survive in this environment.

Fish Consumption -- Poor
This means that for at least one species of fish, human consumption of any kind is banned.

Indigenous Aquatic Life -- Mixed good and fair
I don't trust this more lenient assessment, given that the ratings are worse in more general categories.

Primary Contact (swimming) -- Nonsupported
No swimming! Too much poo!

Specifically, evaluators found in the various branches and channels of the Chicago River excess algal growth, dissolved oxygen, ammonia, nitrogen, phosphorous, zinc, nickel, and PCBs. These things come from sewage overflows, storm and urban runoff, channelization, "municipal point sources," and "source unknown."

Still want to swim in the Chicago River?

Actually, Chris wanted to know how likely he would be to get sick, not whether he would encounter anything nasty. So let's look at the possible virulence of some of the things in the Chicago River.

First, let's start with the thing that keeps you from swimming in the river. Fecal coliform bacteria is not usually a pathogen, but it does usually signal the presence of other pathogens. If you are exposed to this environment, you could get stomach cramps, nausea, fever, ear infections, gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, or typhoid fever. You can kill the bacteria with boiling water or chlorine, or by washing it off thoroughly with soap. So if you dove into the water and jumped out right away and washed off, as far as the bacteria is concerned, you might not get sick. Maybe.

Now for the PCBs. The worst kind of exposure to PCBs is through fish consumption. This can mess up your reproductive function, your children can be born with all sorts of physical or mental defects, you can get toxins in your breast milk, you can get liver disease or diabetes, systemic problems with your thyroid and immune systems, and increased risk of all sorts of cancers. Other types of exposure include breathing it in or contact through the skin. Swimming in PCBs would constitute skin contact. The most common effects of skin contact include lesions and rashes, burning eyes and burning skin.

I'm not seeing any incidence rates of illness related to PCB exposure, but I've stopped looking. The things I have been reading are starting to depress me, and this is antithetical to the spirit of this blog. So I'm going to stop now and list the positives:
  • Manufacture of PCBs was banned in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so at least no more of it is being produced.
  • People are working on cleaning up the PCBs. It won't be an easy task, but they're working on it.
  • Initiatives are underway for cleaning up the Chicago River. It'll take time and money, but more people are starting to care about it. As more residences are going up on the riverfront, more people are wanting to enjoy looking at the water, and smelling the water, and using the water for recreational purposes. This is probably the biggest driver toward making the Chicago River cleaner.
  • People are learning more and more all the time about the importance of keeping our land and water clean.

Bubbly Creek today
Photo from the Chicago Public Library

So, Chris, if you could postpone your swan dive until 2020, you might survive the dip. Whether or not you'd be fined or arrested, that's another story for another day. But in the meantime, maybe you'd better confine your execution of beautiful dives to nice, big Olympic-sized swimming pools.

(Curse you, Blogger software, for losing my entire entry not once but twice!)

For answers to whether Chris would be fined or arrested, see the continuation of this entry, Jumping into the Chicago River part ii

State of Illinois, Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn pages, Chicago River Summit
Encyclopedia of Chicago, Recreational versus Commercial-Industrial Uses on the Chicago River
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Water, Illinois Water Quality Report 2004 This sucker is 547 pages, so make sure you have some time if you want to look at it.

City of Boulder/USGS Water Quality Monitoring, General Information on Fecal Coliform
Barry L. Johnson et al., Public Health Implications of Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
Fox River Watch, How are Local People Exposed to PCBs?

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