The discovery of pharmaceutical byproducts in Lake Michigan and more recently, Lake Erie, is raising concerns about the potential health risk to the more than 40 million who rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water – as well as concerns about what else might be circulating in the water. 

More troubling is that these pharmaceuticals represent just a fraction of the chemical contaminants that make up what some researchers look upon as a vast chemical soup stretching from Minnesota to New York. 

A study released today by the Alliance for the Great Lakes takes a hard look at the existing data on chemicals and chemical byproducts in the lakes, and at what science tells us that could mean for our health. 

The study reports that many emerging contaminants are found in the Great Lakes today, among them flame retardants, modern pesticides, pharmaceuticals, the antibacterial and antifungal agent Triclosan, and the insect-repellent DEET. The now-notorious bisphenol A (BPA), commonly used in a wide variety of plastics such as baby bottles and food packaging, was found in more than half the water samples analyzed in all the studies to date. 

Titled “Emerging Contaminant Threats and the Great Lakes: Existing science, estimating relative risk, and determining policies,” the study says there’s too little data from the lakes and not enough understanding of the effects of these emerging contaminants. What is known, it concludes, is worth worrying about. 

“Exposure to some of these chemicals . . .  is cause for consternation for people and concern over fish and wildlife impacts,” writes Dr. Rebecca Klaper, Shaw Associate Professor at the Great Lakes WATER Institute in Milwaukee and lead author of the report.  

Considered a holding pen for persistent contaminants because it can take a century or more for some of the lakes to “flush” a given pollutant, the Great Lakes have long served as both case study and leader in research on environmental contaminants. The lakes were among the first to yield evidence of “endocrine disruption” in wildlife, a phenomenon scientists first identified in the 1990s to describe the effects of environmental exposure to persistent synthetic chemicals that mimic the body’s hormones and affect the development of babies in the womb. 

The report notes that the last two decades have seen a growing unease about environmental contaminants that previously hadn’t raised concerns about their potential to harm human or environmental health. Some are relatively new to the marketplace; others are just now detectable thanks to technological advances. 

Exposure to some of these manmade and naturally occurring chemicals – known as “emerging contaminants of concern” – is unavoidable. Reflecting a flawed U.S. system for managing chemicals, they’re found in the water, air and land and emanate from hundreds of sources — many of them everyday products such as shampoos, plastics and pharmaceuticals. There’s also a potential for human exposure through eating Great Lakes fish, as many of the chemicals have accumulated in freshwater organisms that inhabit the Great Lakes. 

The impacts of these contaminants on the health of organisms in the Great Lakes and the people living here remain largely unknown. The report says few studies have measured the presence and distribution of emerging contaminants in the lakes and their tributaries, and few have delved into their potential relationship to human health issues and impacts on fish and other organisms. 

The report says addressing the emerging contaminant issue requires focus on four main areas: new research, new technologies, behavioral changes in the marketplace and policy reforms. It calls specifically for a national comprehensive plan to address gaps in research regarding emerging contaminants’ potential harm to public health and the environment, and to identify which chemicals may be the most damaging. 

In terms of policy reform, the Alliance is calling for legislation to reform the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, the 1976 law from which EPA derives its authority to require reporting, record-keeping and testing of chemical substances. Among the needed reforms: 

  • Grant the EPA administrator the ability to act immediately on chemicals we know are dangerous, such as persistent and bioaccumulating toxics, asbestos and formaldehyde.
  • Require chemical manufacturers to provide basic information on the health and environmental hazards associated with their chemicals, and grant the public full access to information about a chemical’s safety.
  • Ensure chemicals meet a standard of safety for all people — including children, pregnant women and workers.

Already, nine co-sponsors have signed onto a bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey that calls for a comprehensive approach to managing chemicals. The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 (S.847) would increase chemical safety, curb emerging contaminants from entering the environment in the first place, and address chemicals that are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic. The following five Great Lakes senators are co-sponsoring the legislation: Dick Durbin (Ill.), Al Franken (Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), Amy Klobuchar, (Minn.), and Chuck Schumer (New York).

“These actions are just the first aid that’s needed now to prevent our Great Lakes from becoming a vast medicine cabinet,” said Lyman Welch, Alliance Water Quality Program Manager. “It’s time to stop treating the people and wildlife of this region as test cases in what could be a science experiment of major proportions.”

More Information:

Fact Sheet >>

Executive Summary >>

Full Report >>