ENVIRONMENT

A call to action

The Great Lakes are in a state of crisis

NORA UNDERWOOD October 23 1989
ENVIRONMENT

A call to action

The Great Lakes are in a state of crisis

NORA UNDERWOOD October 23 1989

A call to action

The Great Lakes are in a state of crisis

ENVIRONMENT

Since 1972, Canada and the United States have had a multimillion-dollar program to clean up the severely polluted Great Lakes. Still, despite the agreement, the Great Lakes and the surrounding regions remain heavily contaminated. And in a joint report published last week, scientists from both countries painted a bleak picture of the future. In announcing the release of a twoyear study entitled Great Lakes, Great Legacy?, the group of six researchers said that damage to wildlife and health risks to humans will continue to increase unless all levels of government on both sides of the border take immediate action. The report said that at least $100 billion is needed to clean up the damage that, has already been done to the Great Lakes region—and to prevent further destruction from occurring. “I’m not worried that you and I will drop dead tomorrow,” said Tony Hodge, a researcher at the Ottawa-based Institute for Research on Public Policy. “I’m worried about the next generation.”

The 360-page, $500,000 report—initiated

and produced by the Ottawa institute and the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Conservation Foundation—said that before cleanup efforts began, water in the Great Lakes was contaminated by “virtually every form of chemical, mineral and organic waste.” But, partly as a result of emission controls imposed on indus-

try, some sources of pollution had been reduced. Now, the report said, contamination in the Great Lakes is caused by fewer, but deadlier, chemicals including the pesticide dioxin, furans—a group of flammable chemicals used in manufacturing processes—and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a chemical formerly used as a coolant in electrical equipment that many scientists say can cause cancer.

The report said that the effects of water pollution on fish and wildlife are sometimes devastating. Many species of fish cannot survive in polluted Great Lakes water, and some birds are born with birth defects including crossed bills and clubfeet. As well, some bald eagles in the region can no longer reproduce because of contaminants in their food. The authors warned that if the region is not restored to environmental health and further deterioration is not prevented, health risks to humans will increase—particularly for pregnant women and children, because chemicals tend to be concentrated in breast milk.

In an apparent effort to soften the impact of the report, federal Health Minister Perrin Beatty announced last week that Ottawa would fulfil a 1988 election campaign promise by implementing a $125-million, five-year Great Lakes cleanup program. But many environmentalists said that the amount of money was inadequate. Said Kai Millyard, policy director for the Ottawa-based Friends of the Earth: “It’s a really good reflection of the widening gulf between the environmental rhetoric of this government and what they’re delivering.” He added, “They’re going to collectively fall into the chasm if they don’t get it together fast.” Of particular concern, the researchers wrote, are groups of animals—including man—at the top of the food chain. Through a process called biomagnification, the quantities of toxins gradually become more concentrated as fish and smaller animals consume polluted plant life—and are in turn consumed by predators. That is why, the report said, humans can drink lake water with few ill effects but “it is often not safe to eat the fish that swim in the same water.” Scientists concluded that studies of certain species of Great Lakes fish and mammals that showed higher y rates of birth defects than in I inland populations signalled a ^ health hazard to humans in I the area.

Most at risk, the report said, are human embryos, infants and children whose parents have eaten “substantial quantities” of contaminated fish and waterfowl. The report cites a 1981 study of

American women who ate

fish from Lake Michigan that appeared to show a relationship between birth defects and toxins in food. University of Michigan researchers examined 242 children of women who had been eating such fish as lake trout and Chinook salmon two or three times every month. The

results showed that birth weights were lower,

that the sizes of the infants’ heads were smaller and that some slowness in motor, thought and behavioral development existed. David Runnalls, associate director of the Ottawa institute’s environment program, said that there is currently no definitive proof that contaminants in food cause abnormalities in children. But, he added, “there is sufficient alarm that, if I were a woman of childbearing age, I’d be careful how many fish I ate.”

Environmentalists and scientists have also expressed grave concern about airborne toxins—chemicals carried by air currents that find their way into the Great Lakes system, either into the water or into agricultural crops. In Lake Superior alone, researchers have detected substantial amounts of the insecticide DDT, which is still used in Mexico, and toxaphene, a pesticide used on cotton plants in the southern United States. And, according to the report, more than 90 per cent of the PCBs found in Lake Superior were airborne. Said Runnalls: “The only way to fix this is to design individual processes that produce substantially less toxic waste.”

The cost of an effective cleanup would be enormous, and many environmentalists charge that both the Canadian and U.S. governments have been paying little more than lip service to the problems. The five-year Canadian plan that Beatty unveiled consists of a $50-million Great Lakes preservation program designed to, among other things, research alternative agricultural practices and new technologies; a $55million cleanup program for the worst areas— so-called hot spots—in the Great Lakes region; and a $20-million study to determine what health risks are posed to people living in the region. “They’re falling far short of what is needed,” said James Ahl, a technical analyst for Great Lakes United, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based environmental group. But Claire Franklin, chief of environmental and occupational toxicology at the federal department of health and welfare, called it “a major commitment.” Added Franklin: “Nobody is saying the cleanup is going to be done with $125 million. It’s really an amount that should take us to a certain stage. Then, we can go back and take another look.”

The authors of the report concluded that neither Canada nor the United States is doing enough—or spending enough—to slow or halt the decline of the Great Lakes system. They recommended that the environment and the economy be “fully integrated in decision-making” to get away from the current process of piecemeal cleanup programs, and that both countries adopt a bilateral accord on air pollution to add to the existing 1987 agreement on water quality. Meanwhile, some environmentalists suggested that the report, by stimulating public concern over Great Lakes pollution, could force governments to take stronger measures. “If people really value the Great Lakes as a resource,” said Runnalls, “we’re going to have to pay some money.” But nursing the world’s largest system of fresh water back to health would seem to be cheap at any price.

NORA UNDERWOOD