As the temperatures drop in the Great Lakes Region, we have the tendency to head inside, curl up by the fire and imagine our concerns are over. Even though the coldest season is upon us with all the holiday trimmings, we can’t pack up our picket signs and stop worrying about the toxic stew that’s swirling around our children’s world. Because as the Lakes freeze and become a surface for curling practice and ice fishing, those toxins aren’t evaporating and taking a holiday break.
While there’s a measurable decrease in the older chemicals contaminants called “legacy contaminants,” there is still a great deal of work to be done. Perhaps in 20-30 years these contaminants will clear out enough from the fish population and consumption advisories can be eliminated. But that would only be a slim victory as new chemicals continue to work their way into the ecosystem.
According to Thomas Holsen, co-director of Clarkson University’s Center for the Environment and co-author of a study about chemicals in the Great Lakes:
“Lake Superior is big, deep and cold, so changes happen more slowly. And Lake Erie’s walleye have a shorter food chain than the trout tested in the other lakes, so the contaminants did not build up as much.”
In this particular study, PCBs, DDT and Mirex were the main chemicals analyzed; they were phased out of regular use in the 1970s because they were building up in the environment. And due to the fact that they are so slow to break down in the environment, they are still easy to find in the sediments, fish and wildlife. In the water and the soil, the chemicals are decreasing in intensity, but the air the saturation is much the same.
According to Ronald Hites, a professor from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs:
“Flame retardants that have replaced banned polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in furniture and other consumer products are showing up more frequently in the region.”
Additionally, they’ve found that these new chemicals are doubling in the environment every two years. There are 362 chemical contaminants that have been identified in the Great Lakes that include the ubiquitous mercury, lead, PCBs and dioxins. Sadly, these compounds have slid into our lives without really being noticed.
3 New Facts About Chemicals And The Great Lakes:
- Coal Tar sealants, now used most commonly on parking lots, release a great deal of PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) into the air during application. PAH levels have increased in the sediment of the urban and suburban lakes since 2000, even though the power plants have decreased their emissions. The PAHs don’t dissolve in the water, so they continue to circulate in the environment through air borne particles. PAHs are known to cause a lower mental development at age 3.
- 20% of the Great Lakes shoreline (or over 2,000 miles of land) is currently experiencing sediment contamination.
- Polycholorinated biphynels (PCBs), banned in 1976, are still found in the people and wildlife around the Great Lakes today. PCB’s have been able to persist in our environment for over 30 years because they have the trifecta of impact on the environment being that they are capable of surviving for a long period of time, they are highly toxic and they accumulate as time goes by.
There will always be chemicals lurking below the surface, but we must continue to step up our activism if we want to rid the air of these toxic chemicals. As the holidays near and we take stock of our blessings, let’s not give into the temptation to just hang out and ignore our environment. With a new year coming around the corner, our President will once again swear to care for our country. Let’s hold him to that task.