Blog: Governments Action to Protect the Great Lakes Basin from toxic chemicals failing

The Great Lakes are enjoying an anniversary of sorts. It’s been almost three years since Canada and the United States signed a revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement with the intention of working together to make the lakes cleaner and safe for drinking. For over 40 million people who rely on the lakes, achieving these goals is essential. Unfortunately, though, our governments are not taking adequate action despite the fact that the Great Lakes remain under siege from an overwhelming number of polluting sources.

Take for example the challenge of toxic chemicals. In the last 15 years, scientists have been documenting a new problem — increasingly high levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals such as alkylphenols, triclosan or even estrogens from birth control pills in sediments and in fish. The evidence shows that these estrogenic compounds affect not just reproduction in fish but their immune system development as well as other body functions. And they are ubiquitous in the lakes. Limited restrictions exist on another famous endocrine disrupting chemical, Bisphenol A or BPA, but alkylphenols, which are used in detergents, along with other known endocrine disruptors gush freely into the lakes from industry, farms and sewage treatment plants. Because of their unrestrained use in products such as detergents, not only industry but we as consumers have become inadvertent and serious polluters.

For many years prior to the recent signing of the updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, governments put very few and inadequate management regimes in place to control the release of hundreds of chemicals into the Great Lakes basin ecosystem. Now the onus is on governments to live up to the terms of the new Agreement by taking a careful look at the worst of the chemicals and designing ways to reduce their presence and their impacts. The latest version of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement stipulates that the nastiest of the toxic chemicals will be identified and addressed. To start this process, Canada and the United States have agreed to draw up a list of chemicals of mutual concern. However, despite the hundreds of chemicals that have damaged the lakes and been identified as targets in other agreements and other lists, only seven chemicals have so far been proposed as potential chemicals of mutual concern.

The genesis of too many chemicals in the Great Lakes stems from the weak laws governing toxic chemicals on both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the border. Although the public assumes that chemicals are tested before they come onto the market, toxics laws ask for only the most minimal information. Where regulations on chemicals have been passed, like those aimed to stop the use, manufacture and sale of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, contain loopholes. For example, unfortunately, the regulation is silent on consumer products containing PBDEs. These loopholes perpetuate the on-going releases of these chemicals into the environment, particularly the GL basin. As a result, chemicals with the ability to persist or accumulate in organisms and chemicals that cause harm to the environment and human health typically make it through the porous legal system to become an entrenched part of commercial and industrial production. Many of these, such as Bisphenol A, a so-called high volume hazardous chemical, find their way into hundreds of applications from coatings on sales slips to dental fillings and baby bottles before they are recognized as harmful.

Tracking these chemicals in our waterways involves expensive analyses and the development of sophisticated testing methods. Proving their harm is even more time-consuming and expensive, and yet their damaging effects on fish and other biological life has been extensively documented. Governments have little incentive to force industries to take responsibility for their chemical practices, and only the most notorious chemicals that grab headlines or are subject to extremely extensive studies are ever limited by legislative action.

There is, however, another way to begin the task of restoring the environmental integrity of the Great Lakes. Rather than re-evaluating all the chemicals that have been detected in the Great Lakes and creating a brand new list of priority targets, the government should commit themselves to a plan of action focused on prevention and taking responsibility for fulfilling the intent of the Agreement with adequate resources. It would mean targeting specific chemicals and restricting or eliminating their use around the lakes.

At one time, the United States and Canada embraced not only a laudable goal of zero discharge to the Great Lakes but also the virtual elimination of certain toxic chemicals. These ideals were both spelled out in previous versions of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement but have now been de-emphasized. In earlier agreements, governments dared to be visionary. Why not keep this vision that would wean our industrial and commercial practices away from those chemicals that do the most harm? If the two governments had the courage to publish the actual list of the 500 or so most toxic chemicals and then publicize it to the industries that use them, and to the public who may be exposed to them. They could jumpstart the movement to substitute these chemicals with less harmful replacements.

Despite the growing consumer demand for greener products, many companies responsible for the use and release of many of these chemicals are not yet shifting to greener substitutes, and, often oppose regulatory measures to ban toxic chemicals. Also, governments choose to develop complex risk assessments on a chemical by chemical basis rather than adopt a precautionary or a proactive approach. In the end, no progress is made in cleaning up the Great Lakes, chemicals continue to strain the ability of the lakes to dilute them, and humans and the environment continue to face the hazards of multiple chemical exposures.

The Great Lakes are a treasure that we take for granted. A treasure that we trust our governments to safeguard. Our trust, however, should not be blind. Without a focus on reducing the toxic chemical burden to the lakes, we are jeopardizing the future of an essential ecosystem and a priceless source of drinking water.

John Jackson is an environmental activist from Kitchener, Ontario, who has worked on Great Lakes toxics issues for over thirty years. Anne Wordsworth is an environmental writer and research associate with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.