Canadian and U.S. Governments need to shift focus to prevention to keep toxics out of the Great Lakes

Binational action on toxics slowly sinking due to glacial pace of planning

Jun 22 2015

Work to get toxics out of the Great Lakes is moving so slowly that it may take more than a century to even list all the chemicals of concern currently found in the lakes. In response, the environmental community on both sides of the lakes is calling on the Canadian and U.S. governments to speed up their actions to address toxic chemicals in the Great Lakes Basin.

The groups say that actions needed to make progress under the current Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) not only need to move quicker, but should also include expanding its list of chemicals of concern and putting in place stronger preventative and precautionary measures for keeping toxic chemicals out of the lakes in the first place.

The groups released a joint letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada and a report reviewing the implementation efforts under the 2012 GLWQA on Chemicals of Mutual Concern, including recommendations for improvement today. The report is entitled, Advancing Prevention of Toxic Chemicals in the Great Lakes Basin: An ENGO perspective on current binational efforts.

“Toxic chemicals in the Great Lakes continue to be problem. After three years of work, the implementation team for the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) Annex 3, which addresses toxics, are recommending listing just a handful of chemicals, including PCBs and mercury which have been problems for decades. Our research has found that there are more than 500 known chemicals of concern in the lakes. If the implementation team’s recommendation is adopted at the international lakes meeting in Chicago next week, we will be dealing with less than even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to toxics in the lake – we’ll be focusing on a snowflake on top,” says Fe de Leon, researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

Meanwhile, rather than embracing the zero discharge approach set out in the GLWQA, the Canadian government is planning to stick with its outdated Chemicals Management Plan approach of setting “safe limits” and controlling risks for discharges, despite the growing evidence that there is no safe limit for many of the more serious chemicals.

“It is very disappointing to see the promise of the GLWQA -- which was renewed and expanded three years ago -- ground down by the lack of urgency evident in the actions of both governments. The lack of capacity and funding for implementation of this Annex adds to the challenge we face with toxic chemicals.” de Leon continued. "Our governments’ efforts should better reflect the precautionary principle, the goals of zero discharge and virtual elimination, which are the key elements necessary for real progress to be made."

“Basing actions on the potential effects of toxics on people after they've been exposed instead of trying to protect them from exposure to harmful chemicals like mercury and PCBs in the first place just isn't good enough," said Lin Kaatz Chary, author of the report, and an expert in environmental health policy and public health. "Science is advancing rapidly, and fields such as green chemistry and engineering, alternatives assessment and materials substitution are showing that the old ways of 'managing chemicals' need to be re-examined. We've been 'managing chemicals ' for decades now but they are still turning up in the lakes. Prevention, not management, is what we need now."

“Listing, of course, is just the first step. We then have to work with industry to move to a zero discharge regime for these chemicals,” adds John Jackson of the Citizens’ Network on Waste Management and a long-time Great Lakes activist. An important area to focus on is getting chemicals of concern out of consumer products. “Discharges via the use of consumer products, whether it is home cleaning products or flame retardants added to upholstery, has become an increasingly large source of toxic chemicals in the Great Lakes. We have to get these chemicals out of the products we use every day and make sure that anything that is substituted is safe for our lakes and our health.”

“The only effective way to keep these chemicals out of the lake is to implement strict zero discharge and virtual elimination programs instead of the weak limitations we currently have in place. The two countries must take their commitments in the GLWQA seriously and commit the resources necessary to protect the lakes from toxic chemicals," de Leon says. "Action on stopping the flow of toxics into the Great Lakes must not be stalled for another decade, let alone another century. Our health and the health of all other lifeforms with whom we share this basin cannot afford that risk."

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For further information, contact:
Fe de Leon Researcher, Canadian Environmental Law Association Tel.: 416-960-2284 ext. 223 Cell: 416-317-1063 E-mail: