The Laurentian Great Lakes, also known as the Great Lakes of North America encompass five connected inland bodies of water – Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. According to the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA), the Great Lakes are “the largest surface freshwater system on the Earth.” Holding approximately 21% of the world’s supply of fresh water, 5,472 cubic miles (22,812 km³), or six quadrillion U.S. gallons, only the polar ice caps contain more water.
According to the 2013 annual report by the Great Lakes Commission, 44.1 billion gallons of water are withdrawn daily from the Great Lakes. This water being predominantly used for public, domestic and industrial use, irrigation and livestock. Heavy industry, manufacturing and agriculture are three of the major causes of pollution of the Great Lakes system. The production of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs, DDT and dioxins, had previously been of principal concern.
The effects of toxic pollutants
Where wildlife is concerned, according to the Great Lakes Information Network, toxic pollutants can alter the genetic makeup of an organism, with studies revealing that the aquatic birds, cormorants, have previously suffered from cross-billed syndrome at rates 42% times the natural occurrence.
To highlight the effect of pollution in the Great Lakes on the human population, there are concerns over the consumption of fish from the Great Lakes as eating polluted fish is the primary reason for human mercury exposure. In the study Mercury in Newborns in the Lake Superior Basin conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), 8% of tested newborns had mercury levels above the U.S. EPA reference dose for methylmercury, the form of mercury found in fish.
One of the biggest challenges now facing the Great Lakes is pollution from plastic. According to Science Daily, research carried out by the Rochester Institute of Technology, found that virtually 10,000 metric tons or 22 million pounds of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes every year. To put this in a more tangible format, the equivalent of 100 Olympic-sized pools full of plastic bottles is dumped into Lake Michigan every year.
The responsibility for reducing levels of pollution in the Great Lakes rests on both the Canadian and American governments at national levels, though responsibility also lies with local governments, communities and individuals. 50,000 residents of the town of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, have shown what can be achieved with hard work and dedication. The previously industrialized town first realized it had serious water quality problems when a local trapper, noticed mink were no longer reproducing in the area, alerting authorities in the early 1980s. Subsequent testing of the water revealed the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, as well as heavy metals. Today with industry having disappeared and its toxic legacy dealt with, the town is now a popular water resort where visitors can surf or take sailing lessons.
Pollution of the Great Lakes has proved to be a catalyst for the enhancement of community spirit, as exemplified by the town of Duluth, Minnesota. Seizing on the Ocean Conservancy International Coastal Cleanup this September, and as part of the Alliance for the Great Lakes initiative, the town organized eight “Adopt-a-beach” days at different locations around Lake Superior, where litter collection was the focus of attention.
Nonetheless, protecting the Great Lakes from pollution will likely be an ongoing battle, but for today’s and tomorrow’s generation, seeing what damage can and has been done provides greater incentive for change and education will be a critical element. In Michigan, 20 teachers attended the Lake Huron Place-Based Education Summer Teacher Institute in 2016, after which they have been able to reintroduce Great Lakes science explorations into their schools’ curricula.
The Great Lakes may responsible for providing water for over 30 million North Americans, yet this is only one reason why reducing pollution is so critical. The Great Lakes Basin holds 10% of the U.S. population and more than 30% of the Canadian population, which perhaps explains why there is a wealth of local government and community-based programs to monitor and deal with pollution. Michigan Sea Grant is a leader in the educational and practical sectors with Great Lakes-specific science-based lessons for schoolchildren and which is also responsible for analyzing much of the rubbish collected from around Lake Michigan by volunteer groups. The Alliance for the Great Lakes empowers and enables tens of thousands of volunteers to have a direct impact on reducing the levels of pollution in and around the Great Lakes, not purely through beach clean ups, but through numerous campaigns that include keeping invasive species out of the Great Lakes, and tackling the latest environmental problem, microbeads, caused by the breakdown of plastic.
Why not get involved with the program? The Alliance is always keen to recruit new volunteers.