Keeping the Great Lakes Great

Ever wonder what’s in Great Lakes water? You’re not alone. Evidence of our reliance on chemicals in everything from pesticides to pharmaceuticals to antibacterial hand sanitizers is found in the water.

Indeed, more than half the samples of Great Lakes water analyzed show the presence of the now-notorious bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in various plastics, including baby bottles and food packaging. But BPA represents just a fraction of the contaminants that make up what some researchers look upon as a vast chemical soup, stretching from Minnesota to New York.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes recently released a study that takes a hard look at existing data on chemicals and chemical byproducts in the lakes, and what science tells us that could mean for our health. The upshot? There’s too little data from the lakes and not enough understanding of the effects of these so-called emerging contaminants.

What is known is worth worrying about. Emerging contaminants have been implicated in hormone disruption and cancers, although few studies have looked at long-term impacts in drinking water or the combined effects of multiple chemicals.

“Exposure to some of these chemicals… is cause for consternation,” warns the report’s lead author, Dr. Rebecca Klaper, of the Great Lakes WATER Institute, in Milwaukee.

Study co-author Lyman Welch, of the Alliance, urges reforming the federal Toxic Substances Control Act to better protect the public from known dangerous chemicals. "The current federal law is broken,” he says.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes is the oldest independent citizen's organization devoted 100 percent to the Great Lakes. Its professional staff works with scientists, policymakers, businesses, community groups and everyday citizens to protect and restore the world's largest surface freshwater resource.

Want to get involved? Visit the Great Lakes Action Center ( to read more and download the study, learn about pending conservation legislation and make your voice heard to your elected representatives.

Susan Campbell is the Alliance for the Great Lakes manager of communications programs and co-author, with Earth Day founder and former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, of Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise, assessing the state of the environment and environmental movement three decades after the first Earth Day.

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