You exit your door on a wonderfully serene day for a stroll: an aquamarine sky greets you as birds and clouds drift by while trees lumber above you with the slightest breeze, every step leading you down to Cole Field. But once you reach the grassy fields, you look to go further. You charge through the forest foot trails, brushing twigs past your ankles, peering up to the local treehouse, before you settle your eyes down to the horizon: the Hoosic River awaits.
A ripple undulates through the water that you follow with your eye downstream till the creek curls out of sight. The steady current invites you to immerse yourself into the river. It would be nice to cool down a little after your walk. So, do you dip in?
Based on advice I have been given, I would not; but is it really that bad to swim in the Hoosic? In the very first week that I arrived on campus, I was dutifully made aware not to go in the river. Something along the lines of, “NO, no. You can’t go in the rivers; supposedly you’ll develop reproductive issues if you do. The Green is questionable, but the Hoosic is a no-go.” What drives these claims? What plagues our watershed? Must we say farewell to our beloved Polar Plunge?
Elaine Denny’s 2004 Chemistry Senior Thesis titled “A Snapshot of PCB Levels in the Hoosic River” outlines the varying dangerous effects of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) which are present in Hoosic watershed. Due to their chemical structure, this family of compounds are extremely stable, hydrophobic, and lipophilic, or “fat-loving.” Therefore, once PCBs enter the environment, they minimally degrade and greatly associate with sediment and tissue in marine life.
If PCBs can absorb into marine life, the chemicals ultimately can affect humans as well. Denny notes the chemical’s ability to bind to a crucial receptor known to affect gene reading and hormone synthesis. Not only the aforementioned reproductive issues arise, including testosterone induced cell proliferation and effect on estrogen metabolism, but also influences to IQ and behavior due to reduction of brain development. While only classified as probable carcinogens, studies report that PCB exposure is linked to GI tract, liver, gallbladder, and skin cancers. Other studies showed no additional risk of cancer due to PCB exposure. To say the least, PCBs are undoubtedly harmful chemicals to humans.
These chemicals arrived in the Hoosic due to its industrial past. PCBs were used in the mid-twentieth century for a multitude of industries, mainly for transformers, but also hydraulic liquids, paints, plastics, and pesticides, manufactured almost exclusively by the Monsanto Company, additionally responsible for disastrous compounds such as DDT and Agent Orange. PCBs, in fact, were so commonplace in the 1900s, they have nearly become ubiquitous at low levels, but high concentrations still instill concern. Many industries planted a baseline level of PCB contamination in the watershed, but specific locales greatly affect the Williamstown stretch of the Hoosic near and dear to Ephs. The Sprague Electric Company, feet downstream from Mass MoCA in North Adams, was found as a dump site of pollutants, including PCBs. Results from Denny, 2004 and previous studies reveal elevated PCB levels in sediment levels in this area.
Luckily, efforts to clean up these polluted areas have succeeded. In fact, Denny concludes “results show that both the PCB-related cancer and non-cancer threat to regular recreational users of the Hoosic River are minimal” (page 126). This is affirmed by the river’s improvement from Class C to Class B river health, regarding it as both fishable and swimmable. This designation denotes the Hoosic as swimmable, but not recommended; pollution is still present within the river and its wildlife. Though you can fish for sport, the fish still contain too high of levels of PCB for consumption.
To succinctly answer the question at hand: can you dip into the Hoosic? I suppose so; but there is notable concern towards recreation on the river. Its Class B designation is restricted to non-potable waters; so swim your heart out, but don’t drink any of the water. This fine line provides enough uncertainty that a final advisory should be given: Swim at Your Own Risk.
-Written by Quentin Funderburg ‘25, Sustainability Communications Intern
Many thanks to Elaine Kelly and faculty of Williams College for their research on the Hoosic Watershed that helped bring this article to fruition. All statistics and other information were uncovered in this thesis, as it was a wonderfully all-encompassing text. In addition, though not mentioned directly in the article, I would like to thank the Hoosic River Watershed Association (HooWRA) for their continued advocacy to protect and restore this watershed we populate and effect.