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Lakes see gains, setbacks

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Lakes see gains, setbacks

Toxic mix changing, scientists say



October 8th, 2009

Frances Willick / The Windsor Star



There are goose droppings on the beaches, mercury in the fish and pharmaceutical chemicals in the water, but the prognosis for the health of the Great Lakes isn’t necessarily bad, some scientists are saying.


Experts who gathered in Windsor Wednesday for the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement 2009 Biennial Meeting said the environmental challenges facing the lakes are mitigated by positive policy changes and public awareness of environmental challenges.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Ted Smith said while some flame retardants — dangerous chemicals that had been turning up in fish tissue and human breast milk in recent years — have been phased out of production, other types of chemicals are on the rise.


Pharmaceuticals and surfactants, used as foaming or wetting agents in products such as soaps and detergents, are continually discharged into the Great Lakes through sewer systems, Smith said.


“Much of what goes down the drain winds up at these wastewater treatment facilities that are not necessarily designed to knock out each and every chemical that’s out there, and that’s a real concern,” he said.


David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, said he believes Windsor’s plan to build a water retention basin will reduce the discharge of sewage waste into the river and improve the quality of the area’s beaches and recreational waters.


Ullrich said many beaches along the Great Lakes are contaminated by sewage, runoff from agricultural land, seagull and goose droppings.


While municipal wastewater infrastructure projects can reduce these problems, he said citizens can also help improve the quality of water and beaches by using low-flow toilets, directing downspouts into their yards rather than into the storm water system and not littering on the beach.


The jury is still out on whether eating Great Lakes fish is a good idea, though. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, said the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish may counteract the negative health impacts of some contaminants.


“People seem to fall into one of two groups: either they think all fish is horrible and you should never eat it, or they think all fish is going to save you from every disease in the world and that’s all you should eat. The truth is somewhere in between.”


Carpenter said fish lovers should avoid eating large specimens, focus on species that don’t eat other fish, and remove the skin before consuming them.

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