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Bow Watch: No Quick Answers to Pollution

Carl Richards - headshot

Many aspects of the chemical environment of the Great Lakes have improved over the last several decades. Federal, state, provincial, tribal, and private entities have labored to control many of the pollution sources that degraded water quality and created problems. Those ranged from the "death" of Lake Erie in the 1960s to widespread sediment contamination from toxins in many harbors and embayments. The control of the largest sources of pollution is a success story that involves science, technology, policy, the public, and government in the myriad of forums that lead to effective resource management.

Even so, significant water quality problems remain in the Great Lakes. Health advisories exist for consumption of many fish species, storm runoff degrades coastal environments, and atmospheric deposition is a significant source of mercury and other pollutants. In addition, new questions have emerged about the relative environmental impacts of chemical compounds previously thought to be either benign or at concentrations below levels that could affect the environment.

Quick answers will be difficult to come by. Resolution of these problems will only come through cooperation among university and federal scientists, governments, citizens, and policy makers in the same way some of the earlier successes in the Great Lakes were achieved.

In that vein, we thank the local, state, and federal agencies that have cooperated with Sea Grant scientists in their research. In particular, we would like to thank the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) for collaborating and cooperating with our researchers on problems including endocrine disrupters. (See the article in this Seiche, "Scrambled Sexual Signals.")

WLSSD has been proactive in assessing the impacts of its waste treatment discharge on the St. Louis River and leads in helping eliminate toxic substances from it. After all, it's not their "fault" that the chemicals are in the discharge; they just process what "comes down the pipe." Finding the solution to pollution isn't about pointing fingers. (If fingers are to be pointed, they're likely directed right back at ourselves.) It's about being willing to address and mitigate these problems.

Endocrine disrupters are a good example of difficult pollutants in wastewater. Their minute amounts, combined with the number and diversity of chemicals involved, makes eliminating them a formidable challenge.

The widespread use of synthetic estrogens in birth control pills and hormone replacement therapies is another source of endocrine disrupters, as are cosmetics, cleaning products, and pesticides. As long as we use such things, endocrine disrupters will continue to flow into wastewater until acceptable alternatives are found.

Fortunately, sources of some known and suspected endocrine disrupters are identified and alternatives to their use exist. WLSSD works with their industrial customers to seek chemicals and processes that are more environmentally-friendly. Continued research is critical to solving this problem.

Besides Deb Swackhamer's research project described in this newsletter, WLSSD is participating in a national Environmental Protection Agency study on endocrine disrupters in their plant effluent. These research projects should improve pollution prevention and education efforts in the Great Lakes, and will go a long way towards reducing the amounts of endocrine disrupters in the environment.

Carl Richards' signature
Carl Richards
Minnesota Sea Grant Director

By Carl Richards
August 2001

Return to August 2001 Seiche

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