Great Lakes legacy: Old contaminants declining; newer ones on the rise

In April, thousands of fishermen gather for the annual smelt run at Whitney Drain, a man-made canal on Lake Huron, to dipnet for the small fish, which often are fried and eaten whole. Photo via U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Legacy contaminants are decreasing more quickly than previously reported in three of the Great Lakes, but have stayed virtually the same in two other lakes, according to new research.

“These are very positive results. The lakes are improving and slowly cleaning themselves up,” said Thomas Holsen, co-director of Clarkston University’s Center for the Environment and co-author of the study.

A biologist conducts a necropsy on a Great Lakes fish. Photo via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Even with the decreases, it will be 20 to 30 years until the decades-old contaminants in Great Lakes fish decline to the point that consumption advisories can be eliminated, Holsen said. In addition, the older contaminants are being replaced by newer ones, mostly flame retardants, that are building up in fish and wildlife.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the pesticide DDT and other banned compounds dropped about 50 percent in fish in Lakes Michigan, Ontario and Huron from 1999 through 2009, although there were no significant changes in Lakes Superior and Erie fish, according to the study to be published this month in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

The status quo at Superior and Erie – which have lower levels of contaminants than the other lakes – is not surprising, Holsen said. Lake Superior is big, deep and cold, so changes happen more slowly. And Lake Erie’s walleye have a shorter food chain than the trout tested in the other lakes, so the contaminants did not build up as much.

Great Lakes fish are affected not only by contaminants but also by invasive species. Photo via U.S. Geological Survey.

PCBs – industrial compounds that are the most prevalent pollutants tested –  are decreasing at the slowest pace, at about 3 to 8 percent per year, while DDT declined about 11 to 16 percent per year. The pesticide mirex, which is only detected in Lake Ontario, decreased 15 to 25 percent per year.

That is substantially faster than previous rates for the contaminants: 2 to 4 percent annual decreases between 1980 and 2003. PCBs and DDT concentrations stayed relatively stable from 2000 to 2003.

“If you look at PCBs in the region, there are still very high concentrations in urban areas,” Holsen said.

All of the compounds studied were phased out in the 1970s after they began building up in the environment, particularly in the Great Lakes. Because they are slow to break down, they persist in the lakes’ sediments and still are accumulating in fish and other wildlife.

Fish consumption warnings remain throughout the basin for PCBs, which have been linked to an array of health effects, including cancer and reduced IQs in people.

PCBs also seem to affect the reproduction of lake trout. Their populations are rebounding as the PCB levels decline, but they face other threats, too, such as invasive species.

“There is significant evidence that contaminants contribute to a lack of reproduction in the lakes,” said Deborah Swackhamer, co-director of the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center. “PCBs and dioxin are going down in Lake Ontario and contaminants are going down in Superior, and you’re seeing more successful lake trout reproduction in these lakes.”

Since bans have eliminated manufacture and use of the compounds, they are now getting into the lakes mostly through what’s circulating in the air.

Researchers collect fish for contaminants testing in the St. Louis River. Photo via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We’ve tackled the low-hanging fruit,” said Ronald Hites, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs who specializes in air monitoring in the Great Lakes basin.

Through atmospheric deposition, the chemicals move from the air to the Earth’s surface. “The trends in the air are much the same. These old chemicals are decreasing,” Hites said. “Especially in the more remote regions like northern Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, it’s almost all atmospheric deposition.”

But it’s not all good news for the lakes, which hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. Other contaminants that build up in the bodies of people and animals are on the rise.

Flame retardants that have replaced banned polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in furniture and other consumer products are showing up more frequently in the region, Hites said.

Thirteen currently used flame retardants are increasing in Great Lakes sediment, according to a February study. While they are at lower levels than PBDEs, the authors from the University of Illinois at Chicago called the trend “disturbing.”

New flame retardants also were found in 89 percent of the livers of ringer-bill gulls that breed near Lake Ontario, according to a 2012 study from researchers at the University of Quebec.

In another study by Hites, two new flame retardants – one of them sold as Firemaster 550 – were detected in more than half of the air samples taken at six sites along the shores of the Great Lakes, with the highest concentrations around Chicago and Cleveland.

PCBs are getting into the Great Lakes mostly from what’s circulating in the air. Photo via U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“The old-fashioned ones are just being replaced by something else,” Hites said. “We’re seeing one of the new flame retardants (Firemaster 550) increasing quite rapidly, doubling every two years.”

The Great Lakes region still has 43 “Areas of Concern,” a term the EPA uses to identify spots with severe environmental degradation. Only four sites have been delisted since 1987 when the program started.

More than 100 contaminant cleanup projects are funded under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, launched by President Obama in 2009.

Jeff Skelding, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, said he is pleased to see legacy compounds decreasing. But he warns that there is more work to do.

“The report is an important reminder to the U.S. Congress and next president to support programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that are accelerating the cleanup of toxic hotspots around the region,” Skelding said. “If federal public officials cut funding, projects will become harder and more expensive the longer we wait.”

Brian Bienkowski is a former Echo reporter now working for Environmental Health News where this story first appeared.

 

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