Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 16, 2013

Forum: Freshwater in need of toxic chemical reform


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — 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.

I am encouraged that this summer a new bi-partisan bill was introduced in the US Senate to update TSCA. The new bill is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. I urge Michigan Senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin to help strengthen the bill, and pass it once it is in top shape. The fate of Michigan’s freshwater ecosystems depends on laws that actually test and restrict chemicals that are causing the most harm to our environment, before they are marketed.

About the author: G. Allen Burton is a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment in Ann Arbor, and a member of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. He holds a doctoral degree in aquatic toxicology.

About the forum: The forum is a periodic column of opinion written by Record-Eagle readers in their areas of expertise. Submissions of 500 words or less may be made by emailing letters@record-eagle.com. Please include biographical information and a photo.