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Great Lakes Article:

Fish on drugs
Toronto Sun
May 25, 2009

Discarded pharmaceuticals are threatening health of the Great Lakes

Water, water, everywhere.

But is it fit to drink?

Trent University professor Tom Whillans still keeps a copy of a newspaper headline from 1978: "Lake Erie dead," it proclaimed.

We've certainly shown progress cleaning up the sensitive Great Lakes basin since then, he says.

"One of the problems we have is complacency. People think that we have changed things a lot. It's OK now.

"Well, it's not. It's just a heck of a lot better than it was."

Whillans is involved in Great Lakes rehabilitation, especially in remedial work that has been done on the 40 chronically polluted "areas of concern," that were identified as in need of cleanup.

He's also a Canadian adviser to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

"There are major successes and there are also major areas that still need attention," he said. So far, two Canadian sites have been delisted as areas of concern -- Collingwood and Severn Sound. Hamilton has also shown great progress in addressing some of its problems.

"It has huge problems that are associated with 200 years of abuse and you don't solve those things in 10 years," Whillans said.

One of the big improvements is in sewage management, especially phosphorous, which is the nutrient that causes the most reactions in the biology of the lake.

It was the focus of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement signed in 1972.

"All of the lakes are showing signs of having recovered from that," Whillans said. While there have been improvements in most urban areas, there are still concerns about rural sources such as agriculture.

Dave Ullrich, is a spokesman for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. Founded by Toronto Mayor David Miller and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the organization is made up of mayors from 62 cities around the Great Lakes, 38 Canadian and 24 in the U.S.

Ullrich says federal and provincial governments need to step up the the plate when it comes to rebuilding municipal infrastructure systems to deal with sewage.

"Cities on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence were some of the earliest settled. There are a lot of old sewers in those cities, built many years ago and for a smaller population and when not so much of the shoreline was paved," he points out.

A 2006 study done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency across the eight Great Lakes states showed a $73 billion wastewater infrastructure deficit.

As well, new and emerging chemicals are developed every day and no one knows what environmental impact they will have on the Great Lakes. He's hoping some of the economic stimulus money that has been pledged on both sides of the border will go into building better sewer systems to better treat the waste that's dumped into the lakes.

"Our cities are interested in, and moving forward with, aggressive water conservation programs," Ullrich said.

"We think that even though we have the largest body of surface water in the world, that we need to be good stewards of it."

One big headache is the ever increasing amount of pharmaceuticals and personal care products that are finding their ways into our lakes and rivers.

Trent University professor Chris Metcalfe says that in 2003, pharmaceuticals were detected in various parts of the Great Lakes.

They are most likely to be found in Hamilton and Toronto harbours, or off the various rivers that flow into Lake Ontario.

Non-prescription drugs such as acetaminophen or ibuprophen are found most frequently. Occasionally, prescription drugs such as antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, heart medication and antidepressants have been detected.

There are also fears about the effects birth control pills and estrogen may have on fish species.

Even if pills aren't dumped into the wastewater system, estrogen passes easily through the human body and into the sewage system. Scientists worry about the effect of birth control pills and estrogen on fish species. While the drugs have only been found in small quantities, they are very potent drugs, Metcalfe points out.

"Certainly our previous work has shown that in some locations in the Great Lakes you have some evidence of feminization of fish," Metcalfe said.

The active ingredient in birth control pills, as well as natural estrogen and some chemicals that can mimic estrogen, may all be contributing to the feminization of fish, Metcalfe said. The reproductive organs of male fish become deformed to the point where the species may not be able to reproduce.

"There is enough information starting to come in now that some populations of fish are starting to be impacted by pharmaceuticals," Metcalfe said.

"We studied the white perch and we noticed that the gonads, the reproductive tissue of the male, had some immature egg cells in them which are indicative of feminization."

Fragrances that are used in perfumes, underarm deodorants, detergents, as well as antibacterial compounds added to toothpaste and mouthwash have also been found.

He says European countries have invested heavily in wastewater treatment and Canada needs to do the same.

"That's a difficult thing, because all municipalities are strapped for cash. But I think both provincial and federal governments have a responsibility to make sure that municipalities are treating waste water to the greatest extent.

And he warns consumers to be careful how they dispose of unwanted or out-of-date medication. Don't dump it down the toilet.

"There is more call now for more programs to safely dispose of out-of-date drugs or drugs that people don't need.

"Some municipalities across Canada have begun to start up programs for the safe disposal of drugs," he said.

We drink from our Great Lake water. We fish in it. Sometimes we swim in it. It is our pure, clear lifebood.

We need to be sure we are good stewards of this precious liquid. It's in short supply, and the stocks are dwindling.


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