Pollution Issues

The Great Lakes Basin ecosystem is threatened by a variety of pollution issues and potential chemical threats.

Read onward, or jump directly to one of these sub-topics:

You can be part of the solution for waterfront Ontario, by making good choices at the water’s edge!

Rethink your use of fertilizers and pesticides; prevent gasoline from polluting the water; create a natural shoreline to prevent run-off from reaching the lake; dispose of hazardous waste properly. Read up on light and noise pollution, and work to reduce your use of plastics.

This video from 2010 by FOCA about Pollution Prevention, still has great information worth sharing on a variety of topics:

There has been slow progress on Great Lakes toxins and pollutants.

Despite the signing of the revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) in 2015, there has been only modest progress on the provisions to deal with chemicals in the Great Lakes basin ecosystem, which continue to pose a threat to human health and the environment. 

Toxins in our water

FOCA was signatory to a letter sent in 2015 (PDF, 8 pages) to the Great Lakes representatives of Environment Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, encouraging better progress on identifying and taking action on Chemicals of Mutual Concern.

The letter, authored by the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), was signed by more than 20 interested health and environmental groups from both sides of the border, including FOCA. The letter emphatically states that progress must be accelerated to identify, prioritize, and act on the threats posed by these chemicals. Along with the letter, CELA provided a detailed background report, “Advancing Prevention of Toxic Chemicals in the Great Lakes Basin: An ENGO perspective on current binational efforts.” (PDF; 52 pages)

Within the stated purposes of “Annex 3” of the GLWQA are obligations for both nations to protect human health and the environment, recognizing that these chemicals, when released into the air, water, land, sediment, and biota should not result in impairment to the quality of the Waters of the Great Lakes; and,  the need to manage chemicals by implementing measures to achieve virtual elimination and zero discharge of these chemicals.

This includes known toxins and persistent chemicals, but also emerging classes of chemicals of potential concern, including pharmaceuticals and personal care products that could adversely affect the health of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem.

Update from 2017:

Several improvements have been recommended to the planned management and elimination of PCB’s, and HBCD’s (Flame Retardants) in the Great Lakes, by a coalition of NGO’s from Canada and the U.S., including FOCA.

According to this letter (download link is below), the proposed management of these “chemicals of mutual concern(CMC)” can be improved by including:

  • targets related to the reductions, and targets for how much each of the planned measures will take us towards those goals
  • reference to how the proposed measures and strategies address the goals of virtual elimination and zero discharge in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) (a fundamental commitment that Canada and the U.S. made when they signed the CMC commitments in Annex 3 of the GLWQA)
  • a legislative and regulatory gap analysis, which could reveal needs and opportunities to review or identify other laws or regulations required to adequately address the CMCs
  • timelines; the lack of specific reduction timelines creates uncertainty in the governments’ efforts, and makes it impossible to hold the governments accountable to their commitments.

Read the whole submission in the NGO Submission on Binational Strategies for PCBs and HBCD (PDF, 24 pages)

Triclosan:

In 2019, the Government of Canada concluded that triclosan is toxic to the environment. Triclosan is a chemical found in a wide range of household products like toothpaste or soap, and can pose a risk to living things in the water, like plants and fish, when these products are washed down the drain. 

The YouTube video at the side, about triclosan, was created by Ottawa Riverkeeper in 1998.

Canada regulates cosmetics, non-prescription drugs, and natural health products to minimize the amount of triclosan, but has not yet banned it, although it meets the criteria set out in section 64(a) of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. Triclosan has been detected in drinking water, breast milk and household dust. 

From 2014 through 2018, FOCA joined our colleagues at the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) and over 50 public interest organizations in calling for a ban on triclosan in consumer products, to protect the environment and human health. As stated in a 2018 letter from concerned organizations, “We are concerned that the government is missing a significant opportunity to address the impact of triclosan on human health, its contribution to antibiotic-resistance, and its toxic break-down products to the environment.”

In 2017, FOCA and other environment and health groups called on the Canadian government to:

  1. Officially declare triclosan to be toxic under CEPA, 1999;
  2. Implement a phase-out of triclosan in all consumer and institutional products, with priority given to cleaning and personal care products, with mandatory product labelling
  3. Adopt a framework of Informed Substitution and ensure that Triclocarban, a similar chemical, is prohibited so that industry does not adopt a regrettable substitution and require transparent alternatives assessments if chemical biocides are shown to be necessary in specific cases.

Download the Environment and Health Groups’ Statement on Triclosan, signed by CELA, FOCA and others (February 2017; PDF, 16 pages)

PFAS:

February 2023 – As recently reported by Dr. Luxmy Begum in Water Canada magazine, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of human-made compounds that are used as surfactants, lubricants, repellents (for dirt, water, and grease) and can be found in certain firefighting foams, textiles (including carpets, furniture, and clothing), cosmetics, and in food packaging materials. They are also used in a variety of other industries, including aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics, and military.

PFAS are made up of a carbon chain with at least one carbon atom that has two or three fluorine atoms attached to it, creating an incredibly strong carbon-fluorine bond that results in chemical that do not easily degrade in the environment. Because of this property they are known as forever chemicals.

PFAS compounds pose various health risks to human and biotas, including disruption to the immune system and liver function, increased risk of thyroid disease and blood cholesterol levels, and cancer. 

Learn more about PFAS from our colleagues at Water Canada. 

Asbestos

Asbestos, a known carcinogen, has been condemned by the World Health Organization and is banned in some 50 countries around the world. Asbestos was mined in Canada from the late 1800s until 2011.

FOCA was one of 68 signatories on a 2016 letter (PDF, 25 pages) sent to the Canadian Prime Minister, urging a ban on asbestos and the establishment of an expert panel review on asbestos.

In 2018, the Government of Canada prohibited the import, sale and use of asbestos or products containing asbestos; however, exclusions were made for its use by permit in a nuclear facility or to services military equipment until the end of 2022, or in chlor-alkali facilities until the end of 2029.

For historical data about asbestos, see this article: Asbestos in the Great Lakes Basin with Emphasis on Lake Superior (IJC, 1975; posted by University of Windsor)

Radon

Radon is a radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rock. Radon can be found in groundwater from private wells, too.

November is Radon Gas Awareness Month

Radon is invisible, odourless and tasteless. In enclosed spaces like homes, it can accumulate to high levels and be a health risk. Learn more from the Government of Canada.

Because there are so many factors, it is not possible to predict the Radon level in a home; the only way to know for sure is to test.

November 28, 2019 – Should Ontarians be worried about radon? Colourless, odourless, and plentiful: Why Kingston is warning residents about radon (TVO)

September 27, 2016 – Exactly How Much Plastic Is Floating In Great Lakes Might Surprise You (Time Warner Cable News)

September 28, 2016 – Washing Out Antibacterial Soap The U.S. FDA is banning many of the ingredients found in antibacterial soaps, such as triclosan and triclocarbin, citing concerns over the safety and effectiveness of the chemicals for consumer use. The Agenda discusses the prevalence of these chemicals in consumer products, and whether Canada should follow the American lead. (Video)(TVO – The Agenda)

September 6, 2016 – FDA will ban antibacterial ingredients from soaps. What about Canada? (The Globe and Mail)

September 2, 2016 – U.S. FDA Bans 19 Chemicals Used In Antibacterial Soaps (NPR News)

As this June 22, 2015 editorial from the Toronto Star  points out, the future of the Great Lakes is vital to the well-being of millions of Canadians and Americans, and that demands deeper and more vigorous protection.