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Reversal of fortune: Great Lakes now source of pollution elsewhere

By KATHERINE RIZZO, The Associated Press, 12/02/98

WASHINGTON (AP) -- There has been a reversal of fortune in the Great Lakes, which for years were damaged by polluntants from elsewhere. They now have become a source of pollution that travels to other parts of the globe, a new report shows.

Chemicals from the lakes which have long-lasting effects are taking to the air en route to the Canadian and Scandinavian arctic areas and points beyond, according to a document issued Tuesday by the International Air Quality Advisory Board.

"The Great Lakes are now a source of many chemicals to other regions of the globe," the report said.

Scientists describe the situation as the grasshopper effect, since the chemicals -- including the pesticide DDT and its kin -- go up into the air, drop down and, when conditions are right, jump up again and move on.

In years past, the air held so many contaminants that the lakes and the land around them became a repository for those substances.

With fewer pollutants traveling over the region in recent years, there's room in the atmosphere over the Great Lakes for volatile chemicals to return to a gaseous state and follow the winds.

That means the lakes are getting cleaner, but the contamination is merely taking up a new address and isn't really going away, said the board's Canadian co-chair, Don McKay.

"We will not be able to say we've eliminated these pesticides from our environment," he said.

It's nature's way of restoring balance. "Where you've got more pollutant, it's going to go to where there is less," he said. [Dilution is the Solution to Pollution, or so says the EPA.]

Research into the phenomenon hasn't progressed to the point where anyone can say where all of the pollution -- some of which originated in cotton fields after World War II -- has ended, and in what amounts.

Bug-killers used decades ago on warm-weather crops have been documented in the Arctic, said Ray Hoff of Environment Canada's Center for Atmospheric Research Experiments in Egbert, Ontario.

"They're moving to places that are colder than the Great Lakes," he said. "Between 2004 and 2020, many of these chemicals will be gone. We will no longer be able to measure them in the Great Lakes."

That's good news for people who live in the Great Lakes basin, but it could be temporary, because chemicals banned in North America are in use elsewhere in places such as Central America, where malaria is considered a more pressing problem than unneighborly pollution, he said.

"We made a mistake by releasing them to the air in the first place," he said. "We can't do a lot about that besides make sure there are no new sources." ...

C The Associated Press, 1998

RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #611

---August 13, 1998---

BAD NEWS FROM THE IJC

The International Joint Commission (IJC) was created by treaty between the U.S. and Canada in 1909, to resolve problems in the Great Lakes. Since 1972, the IJC has been working aggressively to improve water quality in the Lakes, with some success. Initially the concern was phosphorus, a farm fertilizer that can degrade water quality by causing excessive growth of algae and other plants, thus depleting the oxygen supply for fish. The IJC --and the two national governments that it represents --tackled the phosphorus problem and made considerable progress. However in 1978 the IJC began to focus on another, more difficult, problem: persistent toxic chemicals injuring wildlife and humans in and around the Great Lakes.[1,pg.7]

In their joint Water Quality Agreement of 1978, the U.S. and Canada defined a "toxic substance" as "a substance which can cause death, disease, behavioral abnormalities, cancer, genetic mutations, physiological or reproductive malfunctions or physical deformities in any organism or its offspring, or which can become poisonous after concentration in the food chain or in combination with other substances."

The IJC subsequently adopted a definition of a "persistent toxic substance:" any toxic substance that bioaccumulates, or any toxic chemical that has a half-life greater than eight weeks in any medium (water, air, sediment, soil, or living things). The "half life" of a substance is the time it takes for half of it to disappear. For example, DDT has a "half-life" of about 20 years in soil; if a pound of DDT is released into soil today, half of it will still exist 20 years from now. A substance bioaccumulates if its concentration increases as it moves through the food chain. For example, DDT may be found at one ppm (part per million) in fish and at 10 ppm in fish-eating birds. Thus DDT bioaccumulates.

In Annex 12 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978 (amended), the IJC defined persistent toxic substances to include these: DDT and its metabolites (including DDE), aldrin and dieldrin, chlordane, endrin, heptachlor and heptachlor epoxide, lindane, methoxychlor, mirex, toxaphene, phthalic acid esters, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), plus the metals arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, iron, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, zinc, and fluoride, and other "unspecified organic compounds." (See http://www.ijc.org/agree/quality.html.)

During the period 1988 to 1992, under the leadership of Gordon Durnil [see REHW #423, #424, #453], the IJC developed an approach to persistent toxic substances that seemed commensurate with the size and nature of the problem. The Commission turned its back on risk assessment and on numerical standards, instead calling for the ELIMINATION of persistent toxic substances. In its 6th biennial report in 1992, the IJC wrote,

"It is clear to us that persistent toxic substances have caused widespread injury to the environment and to human health. As a society we can no longer afford to tolerate their presence in our environment and in our bodies.... Hence, if a chemical or group of chemicals is persistent, toxic and bioaccumulative, we should immediately begin a process to eliminate it. Since it seems impossible to eliminate discharges of these chemicals through other means, a policy of banning or sunsetting their manufacture, distribution, storage, use and disposal appears to be the only alternative." The IJC defines "sunsetting" as "a comprehensive process to restrict, phase out, and eventually ban the manufacture, generation, use and disposal of a persistent toxic substance." (See http://www.ijc.org/comm/6bre.html and REHW #284.)

In its 7th and 8th biennial reports, in 1994 and 1996, the IJC confirmed and deepened its commitment to the ELIMINATION of toxic substances as the only way to solve the problems they create. (See http://www.ijc.org/comm/7bre.html and www.ijc.org/comm/8bre.html.) Last month the IJC released its 9th biennial report[1] and once again reaffirmed its commitment to the elimination of persistent toxic substances from the Great Lakes ecosystem. The new report says,

"The first evidence of injury by persistent toxic substances was reported more than 50 years ago."[1,pg.9] The new report says that progress was made by banning the most obvious offenders, such as DDT and PCBs, but "evidence [has] continued to build of subtle, more insidious injury, especially neurobehavioural injury resulting from endocrine disruption during fetal development. In addition to substances already identified, others also may cause injury. Among chemicals widely distributed in our environment and reported to have endocrine-disrupting effects are pesticides such as atrazine, alachlor and methoxychlor as well as industrial chemicals such as phthalates, which are used as plasticizers. [See REHW #603.] Among the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on fish and wildlife are behavioural abnormality, compromised immune system and sex change.... Thus, despite improvements, society has not yet gone far enough. Contaminant body-burdens remain a concern --injury is still occurring...," the new IJC report says.[1,pg.10] The new report goes on: "Most disturbing is increasing evidence that persistent toxic substances also injure human beings. The first warning signals of human injury by chemicals at levels present in the ambient environment were raised more than a decade ago, when results were published on a study of women who consumed Lake Michigan fish prior to giving birth. As a result of prenatal exposure to PCBs, the infants of these mothers had lower weight and smaller head circumference at birth, as well as shorter gestational age and poorer neuromuscular development. As they grew, other injury was identified and reported, primarily related to memory, IQ, attention, and learning and behavioural problems."[1,pg.10]

The new report goes on: "The evidence is overwhelming: certain persistent toxic substances impair human intellectual capacity, change behaviour, damage the immune system and compromise reproductive capacity. The people most at risk are children, pregnant women, women of childbearing age and people who rely on fish and wildlife as a major part of their diet. Particularly at risk are developing embryos and nursing infants," the new report says[1,pg.10]

The report goes on, "INJURY HAS OCCURRED IN THE PAST, IS OCCURRING TODAY AND, UNLESS SOCIETY ACTS NOW TO FURTHER REDUCE THE CONCENTRATION OF PERSISTENT TOXIC SUBSTANCES IN THE ENVIRONMENT, INJURY WILL CONTINUE IN THE FUTURE. THE FACT THAT SUCH INJURY IS OCCURRING, COUPLED WITH A LACK OF KNOWLEDGE ABOUT OTHER, AS YET UNRECOGNIZED, EFFECTS IS A CALL FOR ACTION BY ALL [GREAT LAKES] BASIN STAKEHOLDERS TO MINIMIZE AND ELIMINATE INJURY." [Emphasis in the original.][1,pg.11]

The new report notes with obvious approval, "In its SIXTH BIENNIAL REPORT, the Commission concluded 'that persistent toxic substances are too dangerous to the biosphere and to humans to permit their release in ANY quantity.'" And: "The Commission was quiet emphatic that 'zero discharge means just that: halting all inputs from all human sources and pathways and to prevent any opportunity for persistent toxic substances to enter the environment as a result of human activity.'"[1,pg.12]

That is the good news. The IJC is sticking to its principles: persistent toxic substances cannot be managed, but must be eliminated. If persistent toxicants are not eliminated, people and wildlife will continue to be poisoned. But there is bad news in the report as well: Public concern about the environment remains high, but industrial corporations, and the governments they largely control, have dug in their heels and have killed progress toward cleaning up the Great lakes. The new report says, "Public opinion polls continually show that people support a clean environment, but governments appear to be less receptive and responsive to advice and to the wishes of their citizens regarding the environment. Opposition to further environmental measures --indeed to retaining successes to date --is mounting."[1,pg.13]

The new report says, "The ability of governments at all levels to deliver... is being stressed, and programs to restore and protect the Great Lakes have drastically slowed or halted, especially initiatives for Areas of Concern [specific pollution hotspots identified by the IJC in the early 1990s] and those directed toward persistent toxic substances...."[1,pg.18]

As a consequence of opposition by industrial corporations and governments (federal, state, and provincial), "Energy and interest are flagging. Funding and resource cutbacks for environmental programs and supporting science have a domino effect on the public's sense of empowerment and mood."[1,pg.13] The new report goes on, "Recent budget cuts have resulted in wholesale elimination of surveillance and monitoring programs, especially tributary programs in several major watersheds. Consequently, it is impossible to make [pollution] load estimates, even for phosphorus, suspended solids and other contaminants."[1,pg.34]

Indeed, the new 9th biennial report from the IJC is all but an admission of defeat: "Despite years of effort to stop inputs, clean up contamination and eliminate the use of chemicals that have long been known to cause injury, all remain widespread in the ecosystem and many continue to be used," the IJC says.[1,pg.7] The IJC says that the public is asking, "Why are we unable to effectively deal with these persistent toxic substances?" The citizenry, which is eager to stop the poisoning, now has a sense of "hopelessness or disengagement," the IJC says.[1,pg.6] Unfortunately, the new report never clearly states what has gone wrong, even though most people grasp the situation quite well. Industrial corporations are simply refusing to eliminate persistent toxic substances.[2] Furthermore, elected officials, who are reliant on corporations and corporate elites for campaign contributions, have created agencies, such as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that are enforcing the law less and less while relying more and more on "voluntary compliance" by industrial corporations. Wink, wink. Thus, the industrial corporations have succeeded in derailing progress toward cleaning up the Great Lakes, and indeed the larger environments of the U.S. and Canada.[3]

Because environmental advocacy organizations, for the most part, refuse to tackle the power relationships that block environmental progress, environmental progress remains impossible, and the public is (understandably) less and less supportive of an ineffective environmental community. Because no one is tackling the real problem, the public disengages. We are spiraling downward, with no end in sight. Until the environmental community decides to focus on the real source of our problems --the unseemly power of corporations over every aspect of our society --and builds coalitions to challenge the raw power of corrupt money, we will get nowhere. This is not rocket science.

--Peter Montague

(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

[1] Leonard Legault and others, NINTH BIENNIAL REPORT ON GREAT LAKES WATER QUALITY (Washington, D.C. and Ottawa, Ontario: International Joint Commission, 1998). Available free from: International Joint Commission, 1250 23rd Street, N.W., Suite 100, Washington, D.C. 20440; telephone (202) 736-9000. In Ottawa, Canada, phone (613) 995-2984.

[2] Linda Greer and Christopher van Loben Sels, "When Pollution Prevention Meets the Bottom Line," ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Vol. 31, No. 9 (September 1997), pgs. 418A-422A.

[3] Gar Alperovitz and others, INDEX OF ENVIRONMENTAL TRENDS; AN ASSESSMENT OF TWENTY-ONE KEY ENVIRONMENTAL INDICATORS IN NINE INDUSTRIALIZED COUNTRIES OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Economic Alternatives, 1995).

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