RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH NEWS #826
September 15, 2005
THE GREAT LAKES AT A CROSSROAD
By Tim Montague
The Great Lakes stand at a crossroad. By some indicators -- like
fish populations in Lake Erie which have rebounded in recent decades
-- water quality has improved since the 1970's. But the fish aren't
safe to eat. The beaches are increasingly contaminated with sewage.
The water is generally deemed safe to drink, but we know that it is
laced with at least 40 gender-bending and cancer causing
Today the region faces unprecedented impacts from suburban sprawl,
agriculture, industry, sewage, non-native invasive species and global
climate change. It was coordinated region-wide citizen action and
protest that sparked a major clean-up of the Great Lakes starting
in the early 1970s and more of the same is sorely needed now. As
anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group
of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's
the only thing that ever has."
The health of the lakes seems to be declining. Emily Green, the
Sierra Club's Great Lakes Program director says, "There is a growing
consensus among Great Lakes scientists that the ecosystem is reaching
a tipping point." In July the Detroit News reported that although
fish populations in Lake Erie have largely rebounded from their near
demise in the 1970's, phosphate levels in that lake are once again on
the rise and no one is sure why.
Some of the current challenges include:
** Industry in the Great Lakes basin released at least 100,000 tons of
toxic chemicals into the air and water in 2002.
** Mercury emissions just from power plants lower the IQ of at least
50,000 children each year in the Great Lakes region. Total mercury
emissions nationally translate into an economic loss of more than $5
billion each year.[5,6]
** Beach closures due to bacterial contamination from sewage and urban
runoff are at an all time high. Lake Michigan beach closures doubled
from 2003 to 2004 in Illinois.
** Drinking and waste water infrastructure need an infusion of $13
billion over the next two decades to maintain safe drinking and
recreational waters in the Great Lakes.
** 50% of the wetlands -- critical wildlife habitat that absorb and
clean storm water runoff -- in the Great Lakes basin are gone. A new
exotic invasive species takes hold in the Great Lakes ecosystem every
Gail Gruenwald, executive director of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed
Council says, "Science often can't trace problems in the water back to
specific sources on land or break down how much is caused by
development and how much by other factors."
To reverse pollution in the Great Lakes, we must pursue zero
discharge and precautionary policies. Zero discharge means reducing
human sources of toxic chemicals to zero. Precautionary decisions seek
and adopt the least harmful means of achieving a goal. When we have a
reasonable suspicion of harm, and scientific uncertainty about cause
and effect, then we have a duty to take action to prevent harm.
In 1991 Theo Colborn, co-author of Our Stolen Future, sparked a
basin wide acknowledgement that persistent metals and organochlorines
were disrupting hormones, causing a variety of thyroid, immune and
reproductive maladies in fish, wildlife and very likely in humans.
Simultaneously, citizen activists motivated the International Joint
Commission (IJC) under the leadership of Gordon Durnil (a
conservative Republican) to adopt a precautionary approach to the
control of persistent toxic chemicals. The IJC recognized that
quantitative risk assessment and a one-chemical-at-a-time regulatory
approach were not going to solve the problems of pesticides, heavy
metals, and organochlorines.
In the commission's biennial reports of 1992 and 1994 on Great
Lakes water quality, the IJC recommended that the U.S. and Canada:
a) Ban incineration near the Great Lakes
b) Phase out the use of chlorine in manufacturing
c) Adopt a precautionary approach to toxic substances whereby we
eliminate their use even if there is scientific uncertainty about how
harmful they are.
d) Eliminate persistent toxic substances because they cannot be safely
e) End chemical-by-chemical regulation, substituting an approach that
eliminates whole classes of chemicals that form persistent toxic
substances (e.g. PCBs and heavy metals).
There are signs of improvement -- there is less mercury and fewer PCBs
in the fish today than in the mid 1970's yet levels of contaminants
have recently leveled off and new ones like PBDEs are being
introduced all the time.[10, 11] We introduce 1700 new chemicals
into commerce each year, almost entirely untested for health and
environmental effects. The IJC's far-reaching recommendations of the
early '90s seem but a distant memory.
Contaminants persist for years in the Great Lakes. Only about 1% of
the Great Lakes are replenished each year by rain and snow. So the
mercury, PCBs and pesticides end up cycling for a long time between
the water, sediment, plants, fish and wildlife, and humans.
Five million people annually consume fish from the Great Lakes. A
recent survey of Lake Michigan fish found that 97% of the salmon and
91% of the lake trout were so contaminated with mercury that humans
should limit their consumption. By the same measure, 100% of the
salmon and lake trout are contaminated with PCBs.
Children exposed in the womb to PCBs from Lake Michigan fish tend to
have low IQs, poor reading comprehension, difficulty paying attention,
and memory problems. PCBs have also been linked to altering the sex
ratio (the ratio of boys to girls born), reducing fertility, and
causing abnormal menstrual cycles in women. [See Rachel's #327
In its 1998 biennial report on Great Lakes water quality the IJC
continued to admonish the United States and Canada to eliminate
persistent toxic chemicals. And they noted a growing malaise among
regulatory agencies: "...programs to restore and protect the Great Lakes
have drastically slowed or halted, especially initiatives for Areas
of Concern and those directed toward persistent toxic substances..."
Malaise is a polite term for the influence of money in politics.
In its 2004 biennial report even the IJC steps back from its
precautionary stance on persistent toxic chemicals. Zero discharge is
not mentioned. And while it warns of real and imminent dangers to
the ecosystem, it no longer promotes solutions that will fundamentally
reverse the toxic legacy of the Great Lakes. Better fish advisories
will not protect the children who eat Great Lakes fish. Zero discharge
of persistent toxic chemicals will.
We have our work cut out for us. Of the five recommendations that the
IJC made in the early nineties listed above, we've made significant
progress on only one: incineration, which has largely ceased in the
Great Lakes region. Even when there is overwhelming evidence that a
toxicant is a major public health problem and we know how to solve the
problem, the EPA is ineffectual. Mercury is a good case in point.
Coal-fired power plants account for over 40% of methyl mercury
emissions in the Great Lakes. The Clean Air Act calls for maximum
achievable reductions in mercury emissions by 2008. From 1995 to 2003
we reduced mercury emissions by 50% by phasing out incineration and
industrial uses. But emissions from power plants rose from 26% to
over 40% of total mercury emissions in the last decade and they are
expected to grow because we are burning more coal.[15, 16] Rather than
heed the Clean Air Act, the EPA recently proposed to reduce current
power plant emissions from 48 tons to 15 tons (69%) by the year 2026
at a cost of $750 million per year according to the Washington
The Post reported, "...officials emphasized that the controls could not
be more aggressive because the cost to industry already far exceeded
the public health payoff." EPA estimated the public health benefit at
$50 million a year (by considering only human exposure through fresh
water fish). A Harvard study put the public health benefit at $5
billion a year through reduced neurological and cardiac damage. The
100-fold difference between EPA's $50 million and Harvard's $5 billion
annual benefit reveals the highly-political nature of cost-benefit
Citizens, scientists, and even the Bush government are so concerned
about the health of the Great Lakes that congress is considering
sweeping environmental legislation to jump-start restoration of the
ecosystem. With guidance from the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration
(GLRC), federal lawmakers are calling for a $20 billion investment
over ten years to clean up the water, reverse the impacts of urban
sprawl, improve thousands of acres of fish and wildlife habitat and
control exotic species.
But the fate of environmental legislation is uncertain at best in a
post-Katrina, war-time economy. We are spending $4 billion a month on
the Iraq war and according to the Wall Street Journal, rebuilding New
Orleans could cost upwards of $200 billion. It is going to take
major political pressure for the Great Lakes to get the proposed $20
billion. What will it take to make the Great Lakes clean, swimmable,
fishable, and drinkable for all? The IJC described what it would take
back in 1992. But it seems unlikely to happen without a resurgence of
coordinated, region-wide citizen activism.
 Great Lakes Commission, 2001 Inventory of Toxic Air Emissions.
 Brad Heath and others, "Great Lakes an Endangered Legacy," The
Detroit News, August 14, 2005. Citing data from North American
Commission for Environmental Cooperation.
 Leonardo Trasande and others, "Public Health and Economic
Consequences of Methyl Mercury Toxicity to the Developing Brain,"
Environmental Health Perspectives (May 2005) Vol. 113, No. 5, pgs.
 Shankar Vedantam, "New EPA Mercury Rule Omits Conflicting Data,"
Washington Post, March 22, 2005, pg. A01.
 Nancy Stoner and Mark Dorfman, Testing the Waters 2005, A Guide
to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches," Natural Resources Defense
Council, Washington DC, July 2005.
 International Joint Commission, Twelfth Biennial Report on Great
Lakes Water Quality (Washington, DC and Ottawa, Ontario: International
Joint Commission, 2004 ISBN 1-894280-45-8).
 International Joint Commission, Sixth and Seventh Biennial
Reports on Great Lakes Water Quality (Washington, DC and Ottawa,
Ontario: International Joint Commission, 1992, 1994),
 Scott Fields, "Great lakes: resource at risk," Environmental
Health Perspectives Vol. 113, No. 3 (March 2005), pgs. A164-A173.
 E. Hoh and R. Hites, "Brominated flame retardants in the
atmosphere on the east-central United States," Environmental Science
& Technology (2005; in press).
 EPA, Lake Michigan Mass Balance, 2004.
 International Joint Commission, Ninth Biennial Report on Great
Lakes Water Quality (Washington, DC and Ottawa, Ontario: International
Joint Commission, 1998).
 U.S. EPA Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy, 2004.
 Emily Figdor, Reel Danger: Power Plant Mercury Pollution and the
Fish We Eat, U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund,
Washington D.C., August 2004.
 James E. McCarthy, Mercury Emissions to the Air: Regulatory and
Legislative Proposals, Congressional Research Service (CRS), RL31881,
updated May 26, 2004.
 David Rogers, "Katrina's Price Tag Surges Higher," The Wall
Street Journal September 8, 2005, pg. 3.
RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH NEWS
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