New pathogens, mercury threaten Great
Lakes, health of millions of residents
By Colin Perkel
Canoe CNEWS Canada
Published September 13th, 2004
(CP) - 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
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
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
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