The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

gentle manner

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Combined Sewer Outfall BB-013, from the Pulaski Bridge – photo by Mitch Waxman

To begin- I warn you- this post will most likely “gross you out”.

In 1674, Boyle said: “I have often suspected, that there may be in the Air some yet more latent Qualities or Powers differing enough from all these, and principally due to the Substantial Parts or Ingredients, whereof it consists. For this is not as many imagine a simple and elementary body, but a confused aggregate of ‘effluviums’ from such differing bodies, that, though they all agree in constituting by their minuteness and various motions one great mass of fluid matter, yet perhaps there is scarce a more heterogeneous body in the world”.

When the pithy observation was recorded, “effluviums” were the central notion behind the miasmatic theory of disease.

CSO Outfall NC-077, Maspeth Creek, discharges 288.7M gallons per year into English Kills – photo by Mitch Waxman

The viewpoint of the learned classes in prior ages held that when certain noxious vapors produced by a mingling of soil with that standing water typically found about marsh, swamp, and sewer- then mixed with the cool night air- form so called miasmas (which is an ancient greek for pollution, I’m told).

CSO Outfall NC-077, Maspeth Creek, Tier 2 outfall – photo by Mitch Waxman

These miasmas- or “epidemic influences”- were believed to be the cause of Cholera and Typhus– and all the other plagues which would one day scythe through the crowded 18th and 19th century cities of the Industrial Revolution.

Vitruvius, in the 1st century BCE, said: “For when the morning breezes blow toward the town at sunrise, if they bring with them mist from marshes and, mingled with the mist, the poisonous breath of creatures of the marshes to be wafted into the bodies of the inhabitants, they will make the site unhealthy.”

CSO Outfall NC-077, Maspeth Creek, Ranked 25 out of over 400 in terms of volume – photo by Mitch Waxman

The air produced by, in, and around a sewer is typically an aerosol of whatever liquid solution might be floating through it. Hydroden sulfide, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia and a host of other constituent compounds mingle and form what is generically known as “Sewer Gas”. Typically, this gas has the sulfurous smell commonly associated with rotten eggs. Otherwise lacking and poor, the average human’s sense of smell can discern this odor when its concentration in the surrounding air is minor- which speaks to an evolutionary quirk.

Obviously- our ancestors who could not detect this aerosol, or miasma, died off while while those who could detect them passed on these sensitivities on to future generations.

CSO Outfall BB-026, Dutch Kills – photo by Mitch Waxman

If you suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, this would probably be a good time to stop reading this post, incidentally. Things are about to get ugly.

As an example- When a toilet is flushed, and there is scientific evidence to back this, a plume of microscopic droplets- an aerosol– erupts from the water. These droplets carry microbes and virus particles, which then settle on surfaces around the commode facilitating the “surface to hand to mouth” vector of infection. Modern plumbing does its best to minimize this bioaerosol in the house, but routine antimicrobial maintenance with bleach and other chemicals is necessary to sterilize the potential infections which might otherwise occur.

CSO Outfall BB-026, Dutch Kills – photo by Mitch Waxman

Of course, these cleaning chemicals- along with non neutralized microbes- end up in the wastewater flow, and make their way into the sewers… just like the petroleum productsvolatile organic chemicals, and everything else that the human hive produces… where they swirl about beneath the streets and follow gravity to low lying areas. A properly designed system intercepts these waters, but in the case of a “CSO”, a lot of the poison makes it into the mud.

CSO Outfall BB-026, Dutch Kills – photo by Mitch Waxman

A classic example of a bacterium whose spread is defined by such aerosol dissemination is Legionella, but heavy metals and other contaminants may also find a pathway into the human body via such aerosols (let’s just call it vapor or fog). Additionally, fibers of toxic manmade substances- Asbestos for instance- are left behind during evaporation. Such deposits are then picked up on the wind, as are the dusty remains of the putrescent particulates which escape treatment by wastewater industries like the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment plant in Greenpoint or the Bowery Bay facility in Astoria.

During heavy rain events, some untreated sewage reaches the rivers, but a large percentage of it- the lion’s share- oozes out from the bulkheads of that assassination of joy called the Newtown Creek.

CSO Outfall NCB-632 – photo by Mitch Waxman

The Newtown Creek and its tributaries are indeed waterways, but no one ever discusses this plume of disease and contamination in the air. Fingers are pointed at certain chimneys and infamous underground lakes of petroleum and chemicals, heated discussions of when it might be safe to kayak or swim in the water are offered by interested parties, and odd admissions that there are some who actually fish in and consume the catch from these waters (which according to the EPA, are offering this catch for sale in area restaurants) both shock and titillate area wags- but what about the miasmas?

CSO Outfall NCB-632 – photo by Mitch Waxman

The sewer system of New York City is a composite beast, marrying together the municipal infrastructure of multiple communities into a single system. The cities of Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan (the historically agrarian and until modernity- lightly populated – Bronx has almost always been ruled over by Manhattan) each had their own standard, staring elevation, and set of regulations governing the sewers.

This NYTimes.com article from 2008 discusses recent attempts to consolidate and digitize the municipal record, and make sense out of the byzantine network of pipes which underlie the city.

CSO Outfall NCB-632 – photo by Mitch Waxman

Who can guess, all there is, that might be buried down there?

Who can speculate, all there is, which might be wafting out from these deep channels of filth and what strange aerosols are carried upon the gentle breeze- here in the Newtown Pentacle?

3 Responses

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  1. […] (for another view of 49th street- from the CSO POV, click here) […]

  2. […] Time will tell, and cancer is patient. […]

  3. […] in the formation of significant “habitat” along its wooded shorelines. Cursed by a large CSO (Combined Sewer Outfall) at its terminus, Maspeth Creek often exhibits large slicks of garbage, fats, and other sediments which find their […]


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