Chemicals in the Great Lakes and How You Can Help
Toxic chemicals from coal-burning power plants and other industries, litter and urban storm water runoff are polluting our Great Lakes and causing problems for the lakes’ ecosystems and Wisconsinites.
Mercury from burning fossil fuels
Most of Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers, including the Great Lakes, are under a fish consumption advisory warning people to be careful how much fish they eat due to high levels of mercury. Exposure to mercury can cause a host of health problems, such as developmental issues in infants and children and can lead to memory and vision loss in adults.
In addition, the concentration of mercury in the Great Lakes alters the acidity of the water and impacts the biological development of animals. Larger fish, such as Muskie and Walleye, accumulate more mercury, making them dangerous to eat, making business difficult for fishermen. Power plants along the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior continue to burn fossil fuels, which release mercury into the air and water, causing most of the mercury pollution in Wisconsin. With Wisconsin’s utilities continuing to favor fossil fuels, consumers are encouraged to check fish consumption guidelines to keep themselves and their families safe.
While most of the pollution from burning fossil fuels happens on land, the S.S. Badger, a historic ferry that runs between Manitowoc, Wis., and Ludington, Mich., operates on coal and dumps its leftover coal ash directly into Lake Michigan. This coal ash contains mercury, arsenic and lead, among other toxins that pollute the sediment on the bottom of the lake and harm aquatic life. In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the S.S. Badger until 2012 to find a solution to their polluting; they were unsuccessful and continue to dump coal ash into the lake. This past spring the EPA allowed the S.S. Badger to continue service as long as they reduce the amount of coal ash unloaded into the lake by 15%. By 2015 S.S. Badger needs to have a containment system so 100% of the ash is stored on the ship and not dumped in the lake. Clean Wisconsin has consistently urged the EPA to put an end to this unnecessary contamination.
What you can do
By voting and encouraging renewable energy in Wisconsin, you can help reduce the amount of fossil fuels we use. In your own home, look for ways to reduce our energy use, such as buying the most efficient light bulbs and electric appliances available, insulating your home well, using a programmable thermostat and looking into incentives and rebates offered by Focus on Energy, the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency program.
Last spring, the first Great Lakes Plastics Survey found between 1,500 and 1.7 million pieces of plastic per square mile in Lake Superior. Research for the survey was done through the University of Wisconsin-Superior, where they found that chemicals stick to these plastics, making them dangerous for animals to consume and problematic for water quality. With chemicals such as mercury sticking to the plastics, this will only increase the amount of mercury in the Great Lakes. Children born in the Lake Superior Basin in Wisconsin already have a higher chance of being born with increased levels of mercury in their blood. Research to address the issues resulting from plastics entering the Great Lakes continues, but there are actions we can take to help as well.
What you can do
By not littering in our lakes or near our shores, we can keep plastics from becoming a larger issue in the Great Lakes. When you can, use a reusable water bottle instead of purchasing water and other beverages in disposable plastic containers. When you do use those containers, make sure they’re recycled when you’re done. Avoid buying body wash that contains plastic micro beads, which don’t break down in your shower and eventually end up in our lakes. Volunteering to clean up beaches and wetland areas keeps the Great Lakes and your community clean, safe and beautiful. While you’re on the water, remember to bring a bag or bucket for garbage to keep trash from going overboard.
Spring and early summer 2013 keep bringing the rain, which is great for agriculture and our gardens (and the mosquitoes!), but when we don’t manage the runoff from our agricultural and urban areas properly, all that excess runoff and the pollution it carries with it can harm our lakes. Storm water carries waste from streets and sidewalks, oil and other chemicals from leaky cars, and leaves, soil and fertilizers from yards and parks into the Great Lakes. This contributes to the amount of plastic waste entering the lakes and certain chemicals, such as phosphorus, feed the nasty algae blooms in the lakes, especially with warmer water temperatures. Algae blocks out sunlight, harming aquatic life and can cause respiratory problems for swimmers, in addition to making swimming and even walking along lake shorelines gross. This destruction to the Great Lakes not only impacts the fish and animals that live there, but also the health and livelihood of the people in Wisconsin.
What you can do
Installing rain barrels and rain gardens at your home to collect rainwater can decrease the amount of runoff that goes into our Great Lakes. Avoid overusing fertilizers in your yard and garden—this will save you money and reduce runoff pollution into the lakes.
For years, Clean Wisconsin has supported the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other successful programs and efforts at the local, state and national level to restore and protect the Great Lakes from problems such as toxic hot spots, polluted runoff, habitat loss, invasive species and more. In many ways, the Great Lakes are suffering, but the good news that is we all have a hand in improving our lakes. Please help be a part of the solution. This summer, let’s work together to Keep the Great Lakes Great.