Recently, Environmental Health News reported a study from scientists showing that prescription drugs and chemicals found in personal care products are contaminating Lake Michigan. Wastewater treatment plants are simply not designed to remove these chemicals, and the effects can be costly to aquatic life and people.
I am a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment where I am an ecotoxicologist. Twenty-eight years ago I began teaching students about our nation’s chemical safety law — The Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA), and sadly it hasn’t changed since. While the law had good intentions, it proves to be inadequate. TSCA requires industry to provide data on the fate and effects of chemicals, but this data is too limited as is the review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As a result, there are constantly new chemicals put onto the market with inadequate testing; many of which cause harm to human health and aquatic life.
Water runoff from agriculture, residential and urban environments, including wastewater treatment plants, all contribute to chemical contamination in fish and other aquatic life. Studies across our nation and around the world are showing increased abnormalities in fish below wastewater treatment plants where chemicals, including pharmaceuticals and personal care products, are routinely discharged. There, more fish are displaying signs of intersex and consequently, they cannot reproduce properly. Some studies have shown aquatic food webs may collapse with exposures to some of these commonly used compounds.
In the Great Lakes, TSCA has failed to protect our waterways and ecosystems. Many emerging contaminants such as bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and flame retardants are used in consumer products and in industrial applications and then, they end up in our lakes. All of the Great Lakes and their connecting channels are under fish consumption advisories, and there are now 37 “Areas of Concern”. These are places where chemical contamination endangers the quality of life for people and wildlife.