Can the Great Lakes Become Fishable, Drinkable and Swimmable Again?
By Susan Cosier
As Mark Mattson waited to speak to Canada's minister for the environment, Catherine McKenna, about the Great Lakes last December, he could feel the weight of the 184-page report he carried in his shoulder bag. At the Toronto meeting, McKenna asked Mattson, founder and president of the Lake Ontario arm of the nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance, what she could do to help protect the five massive basins. He handed her the contents of his bag, with the important parts underlined or highlighted.
"I told her, 'You need to look at this report and you need to take it very seriously," said Mattson.
The document, the First Triennial Assessment of Progress on Great Lakes Water Quality, was published in November by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a group formed in 1909 to help prevent disputes over transboundary waters. It is the first such appraisal of the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world since 2012, when the U.S. and Canada updated the bilateral agreement on water quality in the lakes.
To compile the document, the six IJC commissioners drew on the latest science on the Great Lakes. They also reached out to communities across the region to come up with steps government bodies can take to ensure that the water becomes drinkable, fishable and swimmable—the highest standard for freshwater.
Sure, the Great Lakes are a lot cleaner than they were back in the 1960s, when a Cleveland newspaper pronounced Lake Erie dead due to the huge amount of industrial and agricultural pollution and sewage that had flowed into it. But as recently as 2014, pollution rendered Toledo's water unsafe to drink. And the dead zone that materializes in Lake Erie every summer serves as a reminder that the lakes still aren't clean enough to meet the drinking water, recreational and aquaculture needs of the surrounding communities.
"I think Lake Erie is the perfect example of how, if we aren't diligent and we don't keep constant pressure on governments and agencies to maintain the quality of the lakes, we see what happens," said IJC's public affairs officer, Sally Cole-Misch.
Many people are shocked to learn that communities along the Great Lakes' shores still dump untreated sewage into the water. In just one year, the authors note, 20 cities in the U.S. and Canada allowed 92 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater to course into the lakes.
Boats going through an algae bloom on Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio.Aurora Photos / Alamy
Phosphorus, mostly in runoff from farm fields, continues to wash into the lakes and contribute to algae blooms. In Ohio, the agricultural community did adopt voluntary measures to reduce the amount of pollution from fertilizer in Lake Erie, but it isn't subject to mandatory limits. The IJC now recommends these. In Michigan, the state government recently designated its portion of Lake Erie "impaired," allowing the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Quality to limit the amount of agricultural nutrient that can wash into the waterway. That step marks the first time a Great Lakes state has taken such an action against a non-point source of pollution. Wisconsin has set nutrient pollution caps for waterways, but not specifically for Lake Michigan.
A warming climate only exacerbates the problems facing the Great Lakes, said Cole-Misch. Stronger storms that come with higher temperatures soak the region and can overwhelm infrastructure in places like Chicago, whose Deep Tunnel project is designed to prevent floodwater and sewage from surging into rivers and Lake Michigan. But even that massive public work may not be able to catch the amount of water that cascades into the system as storms intensify.
Deep Tunnel project at Thornton Quarry, Thornton, Illinois.Tribune Content Agency LLC / Alamy
Invasive species and pollutants like microplastics and flame retardants already threaten the lakes, and more should be done to address even bigger problems likely to occur down the line, the commissioners argue. "Preventing harm in the first place is a new imperative for all of us," said Cam Davis, a former EPA chief liaison to the U.S. Congress for the Great Lakes who now works as a consultant.
The commission's suggestions, however, are just that. States are not required to implement them. But following the panel's counsel would keep the lakes safer for the 34 million people who depend on their waters—as well as the 65 million pounds of fish pulled from their depths each year. More people would be drawn to the region, a sure way to create more environmental stewards, said Mattson.
Already, citizens help monitor the lakes for pollution. Every month, up to 75 members of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, for example, monitor water quality in the Niagara River watershed, which acts as a drain for Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. The group also publishes annual water quality reports and maps. In the new report, IJC recommends establishing a new binational monitoring program that would make information about potential health hazards in all of the Great Lakes available to the public.
American Falls and the Niagara River.Jesse Davis / Flickr
Government officials would be wise to act on that suggestion and the report's other recommendations, said Mattson, or risk losing "the people who are connected to the lake, are using the lake, and are caring about it." At stake, he said, is "a generation of people who are going to help us restore it."
Canada's environment minister McKenna seems to be listening: After Mattson handed her the IJC report, her government informed the Waterkeeper Alliance that it will soon announce new initiatives, actions and funding for the Great Lakes. Mattson's confident they'll be in line with the report's recommendations.
OnEarth's Midwest correspondent, Susan Cosier previously worked at Audubon magazine and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She's a graduate of New York University's science journalism program.
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As protests are taking place across our nation in response to the killing of George Floyd, we want to acknowledge the importance of this protest and the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the years, we've aimed to be sensitive and prioritize stories that highlight the intersection between racial and environmental injustice. From our years of covering the environment, we know that too often marginalized communities around the world are disproportionately affected by environmental crises.
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With more than 1.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and more than 100,000 deaths from the virus, physicians face unprecedented challenges in their efforts to keep Americans safe.
They also encounter what some call an "infodemic," an outbreak of misinformation that's making it more difficult to treat patients.
When Leaders and Doctors Spread Misinformation<p>When people in charge of towns, cities, states, and countries spread misinformation, the potential for belief in misinformation to result in policies can have harmful effects.</p><p><a href="https://www.northwell.edu/find-care/find-a-doctor?q=Bruce+E.+Hirsch%2C+MD&insurance=&location=&query_type=provider&physician_partners=false&default_view=list&gender=&language=&sort=relevancy" target="_blank">Dr. Bruce E. Hirsch</a>, attending physician and assistant professor in the infectious disease division of Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York, says an example of this is when President Trump informed the public he was taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure.</p><p>"To approach this enormous challenge, we need some intellectual honesty and clarity, and to disregard expertise and to make decisions and model decisions based on hunches is inviting us to handle challenges on the basis of rumor and uninformed opinion. The magnitude of that error is epic," Hirsch told Healthline.</p><p>Stukus agrees, noting that the harm of this proclamation is documented.</p><p>"Early on when the president touted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, people started to hoard this medicine, and state boards had to shut it down because they were getting so many prescriptions for this unproven therapy that it was not available for those who truly needed it, such as those who have lupus and autoimmune conditions," Stukus said.</p><p>He adds that calls to poison control centers increased after the president suggested using disinfectant to prevent contracting the new coronavirus.</p>
Listen to Science, Even When it Changes<p>When recommendations change or evidence flip-flops, skepticism may arise. However, Stukus says change is the beauty of science.</p><p>"That shows us that we can evolve, and if the evidence shows that our prior thoughts were incorrect, we need to be able to change our recommendations and advice based upon the best quality of evidence at the time," he said.</p><p>Pierre agrees.</p><p>"Science is an iterative process, whereby we arrive at facts and truth through repeated and controlled observations. That means that it's inherently self-correcting as we revise conclusions based on ongoing research. Scientific facts aren't immutable dogma chiseled on a tablet. They change based on the best available evidence we have at a given point in time," he said.</p><p>Because research of COVID-19 has only been underway for 6 months, information is evolving rapidly, and new information may contradict old.</p><p>"There's still much we don't know about exactly how [COVID-19] spreads, what effects it has on the body, or how to best treat it. That means that the best available evidence is preliminary, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore it or turn to other sources of information or opinion as if they're just as valid," Pierre said.</p><p>He explains that conspiracy theories based on mistrust lead to vulnerability to misinformation.</p><p>If people mistrust science because it sometimes "changes its mind," Pierre said, "that shouldn't be used to embrace other opinions based on no evidence at all, which are typically selected based on confirmation bias: what we want to believe rather than what the objective evidence supports."</p>
Where to Find the Best Information<p>Stukus says to start with the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html" target="_blank">CDC</a> and <a href="https://www.nih.gov/health-information/coronavirus" target="_blank">NIH</a>. Then check with your local health officials, because COVID-19 guidelines may vary depending on where you live.</p><p>If you can't find information you need or have questions specifically related to you, call your primary care doctor.</p><p>"Your personal doctor should always be a resource for individual specific questions because they know best how to apply all the nuances retaining to your health, and how to incorporate all the other general [COVID-19] recommendations," Stukus said.</p><p><a href="https://www.eehealth.org/find-a-doctor/b/boyd-laura-b/" target="_blank">Dr. Laura Boyd</a>, primary care physician at Edward-Elmhurst Health Center in Elmhurst, Illinois, says her clinic receives a lot of calls about COVID-19.</p><p>"Most doctors' offices are receiving calls and answering questions, and doing phone or video visits to help clarify and/or order testing over the phone based on patients' symptoms. It is always best to call your doctor's office first instead of worrying about symptoms and waiting too long to seek treatment," she told Healthline.</p><p>If your primary care doctor has limited testing, she suggests looking on your state's public health website for available testing sites.</p><p>With a lot of unknowns related to this virus and disease, Boyd says many patients are feeling overwhelmed and anxious for a treatment.</p><p>"Unfortunately, there is no specific medication recommended for COVID for outpatient. There are a lot of ongoing studies with various drugs going on within the hospital setting. Patients should always contact their doctors about their specific symptoms as they can treat the symptoms that go along with COVID, but there is no cure," Boyd said.</p><p>While we wait for treatment and a vaccine, Hirsch, who treats patients hospitalized for COVID-19 complications on a daily basis, says everyone can do their part by washing hands, wearing a mask, and staying 6 feet apart.</p><p>"As an infectious disease doctor working in the hospital, I see the damage of the pandemic and the worst cases of what's happening. We are trying to get the best possible outcome and confronting this overwhelming biologic reality of this terrible epidemic the best we can," Hirsch said.</p><p>Everyone at home can help in the fight too, he adds.</p><p>"Follow information that is science- and evidence-based, and avoid that which is not," he said.</p>
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