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Serious Pollution of Great Lakes & Its Residents Continues

Mon. Sep. 13 2004
New Great Lakes threats put millions at risk: report

Canadian Press (News Service)

New antibiotic-resistant pathogens, airborne mercury and urban sprawl are
threatening the health of the Great Lakes and millions of people who live
around the bodies of fresh water, a report to the Canadian and U.S.
governments concludes.

While there has been a general improvement in water quality over the past
30 years, the International Joint Commission report released Monday warns
new and emerging threats require urgent attention. "Without adequate
safeguards, our health can be threatened by pathogens and disease-bearing
micro-organisms," the report states.

"The governments must focus increased attention on protecting the sources
of drinking water supplies."

Dennis Schornack, American co-chairman of the commission, said the frequent
use of antibiotics in livestock and humans is causing the problem.

Bacteria can develop immunity to the drugs, then end up in drinking water
and cause illness, he said.

"We've got to become better at monitoring pathogens in the water and
examine whether the waste-water treatment plants that we have in place are
successfully killing the organisms," Schornack said.

Herb Gray, the commission's Canadian co-chairman, said the best way to
tackle the problem is to curb the use of antibiotics.

The biennial report recommends better management of watersheds to mitigate
the impact of agriculture, development, industry and urbanization -- a
daunting task.

"There are a large number of problems still to be dealt with," Gray said.

"(They) are large-scale. They'll require large amounts of money over an
extended period of time."

Another threat identified in the report is airborne methyl-mercury, which
ends up in the water. Most comes from regional coal-fired power generators,
but some comes from as far as China.

Other chemicals, such as fire retardants commonly used for furniture, are
posing new threats.

"Chemical contamination continues to endanger human health and restricts
the number of fish we can safely eat," Gray said.

Another area of concern is the ongoing problem posed by alien species
brought in by the ballast water of foreign ships.

Currently, about one new invasive species takes hold every eight months.

While there have been some successes in controlling their proliferation,
none have ever been eradicated.

Still, Schornack said he believes overall water quality in the lakes has
improved in recent decades.

As an example, he noted Lake Erie is now far healthier than it was 30 years
ago.

However, the emergence of unexplained dead zones in the lake has raised new
worries.

"We're very concerned about Lake Erie, not only for Lake Erie itself but
for what it could be a harbinger of for the other lakes," Gray said.

Release of the report also coincides with the first major overhaul in 17
years of the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes water quality agreement, initially
signed in 1978.

Both Grey and Schornack said they hope the review will result in a new deal
that will given the joint commission more teeth to tackle threats to the
Great Lakes.

"It's a tremendous opportunity the two countries have to protect this
ecosystem," Schornack said.

However, the involvement of federal, provincial and state governments makes
for complex jurisdictional issues, the chairmen admitted.

The International Joint Commission released its 12th biennial report on
Great Lakes water quality on Monday. Some key recommendations:
* Address impact of urban land use and curb runoff from urban
areas.
* Protect drinking-water sources from industry, urban expansion and
agriculture, especially large-scale animal operations.
* Pass legislation in Canada and the U.S. to strengthen measures
aimed at preventing foreign-species invasions.
* Study effects on neural developmental associated with
methyl-mercury and PCBs.
* Make fish advisories clear, simple and consistent, and ensure
they reach intended audiences.
* Take steps to cut regional and international mercury deposits in
the Great Lakes.
* Continue funding research into changes in the Lake Erie
ecosystem.