Rachel's Democracy & Health News #891, January 25, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: Scientists studying the Great Lakes have recently learned that chemicals are taking a far greater toll on humans and wildlife than previously realized. But the corporate polluters are organizing to maintain business as usual.]

By Peter Montague

Last week we began describing a new report from the International Joint Commission (IJC) that says regulation of toxic chemicals has failed in the Great Lakes, and a precautionary approach is needed. The IJC is the bi-national (U.S.-Canada) governmental body responsible for water quality in the Great Lakes. Here we continue describing the IJC's report (6 Mbyte PDF), especially chapter 5 ("Human Health"). [In our text, numbers inside parentheses refer to pages in the IJC report. Words inside square brackets represent our clarifications or comments.]

1. Harm to Great Lakes wildlife is very widespread and fundamental

A 1991 basinwide assessment of the health of herring gulls nesting in 11 colonies representing all five Great Lakes, relative to two reference colonies outside of the basin, revealed widespread DNA damage and chronic... inflammation of the liver and... inflammation of the kidney. (pg. 117)

"Great Lakes gulls suffered from hypothyroidism [insufficient thyroid hormone] and had enlarged hyperplastic thyroid glands [meaning thyroid glands with growths or nodules]. These toxipathic responses were most frequently associated with PCBs.

"Studies of pre-fledgling herring gulls in 1994-1999 in lakes Huron, Erie, and Ontario revealed marked suppression of T-cell-mediated immune function and altered antibody production.

"Studies of herring gulls in colonies in the Detroit River, western Lake Erie and Lake Ontario 2001-2004 revealed that biochemical, thyroid, and immune effects still persist. In addition, there were effects on corticosterone secretion and, at some sites, the plasma of males contained vitellogenin, suggesting they were exposed to biologically significant concentrations of estrogens. Similar biochemical effects were seen in male snapping turtles, and thyroid effects were seen in snapping turtles and fish. Vitellogenin was also found in the plasma of male fish and snapping turtles. (pg. 117)

Comment: insufficient thyroid hormone is a serious problem for wildlife, as it is for humans. Thyroid hormone controls an animal's metabolism, and is crucial in early development of the nervous system. The immune system of course protects against infectious diseases and cancers. The presence of vitellogenin in male fish and turtles indicates that the males are being turned into females by exposure to the waters of the Great Lakes. Obviously, these are all signs of widespread serious trouble.

2. Living near a contaminated site can cause human illness and death

In the early 1990s, the IJC identified 43 "areas of concern" (AOCs) in the Great Lakes. These are harbors or rivers or discharge points that are severely contaminated. These areas were supposed to be cleaned up rapidly during the 1990s, but that did not happen.

Now we learn that simply living near one of these areas can make people sick -- even if they eat no fish from the Great Lakes:

"In 1998, Health Canada [roughly the Canadian equivalent of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] reported on retrospective epidemiological evidence for each of the 17 Canadian AOCs. They used mortality, hospital admissions/separations, and cancer data for 1986-1992 to calculate morbidity, mortality, and incidence rates. The data suggested that there was increased morbidity and mortality for a variety of health effects associated with residence in these AOCs relative to the Province of Ontario as a whole. Also, residence in a particular location was found to adversely affect health independent of whether Great Lakes fish is consumed." (pg. 120)

"The Health Canada studies for the various Canadian AOCs found increased incidence of genital-tract disorders, thyroid disease, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asthma." (pg. 120)

"These findings led investigators at the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany to test a series of hypotheses based on the assumption that these health end points are associated with place of residence. Using a variety of available health data collected in the 1990s, they tested these hypotheses for individuals living near the nearly 900 contaminated sites identified in New York state, including AOCs.

"They found convincing evidence that a number of chronic and acute diseases occur more commonly in patients who reside near hazardous waste sites and AOCs containing priority pollutants, especially persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs. The elevated incidence is not accounted for by socio-economic status or lifestyle factors such as smoking, diet, or exercise. These findings imply that inhalation is a major route of exposure." (pg. 120)

Got that? Inhalation is a MAJOR route of exposure. This is new information.

The IJC report goes on: "Effects documented include adverse impacts on reproduction and development, metabolism, and endocrine and immune functions. In addition, studies suggest that increased risks of heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes are associated with residence near AOCs and hazardous waste sites.

"A recently published study has also shown a strong association between ambient air pollution and respiratory hospitalization in the Windsor [Ontario] AOC.

"Inhalation can be a major route of exposure. The health of large numbers of people in many communities in the Great Lakes basin may be compromised by multi-media exposure to the contaminants in their environment," the IJC report concludes. (pg. 120)

Comment: For a second time the IJC report says inhalation can be a MAJOR route of exposure.

3. Basic Toxicity Information is Missing for Many Chemicals

"Derek Muir described his search strategy to identify potential chemicals of concern among the approximately 100,000 chemicals in commerce, approximately 70,000 of which are on the Toxic Substances Control Act list created in 1976, and 5,200 that exceed a production volume of 1,000 tonnes/year [2.2 million pounds per year] according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Of these 5,200 chemicals, 43 percent had no toxicity data available as of 2004." (pg. 123)

Furthermore, "... less than 10 percent of high-volume industrial chemicals have been evaluated regarding their bioaccumulation, environmental fate, and toxicity." (pg. 125)

4. Mixtures of Chemicals Have Potent Effects

"It is known that the combined effects of a mixture of dioxin-like compounds are additive when adjusted for potency.... Recently, investigators discovered that the same holds true for estrogenic chemicals [meaning industrial chemicals that mimic the female sex hormone, estrogen]. Crofton et al. (2005) dosed young rats with a mixture of two dioxins, four dibenzofurans and twelve PCBs. The mixture was formulated to reflect typical concentrations measured in breast milk, and in fish and other foods. None of the concentrations in any of the doses exceeded the LOELs [lowest observed effect levels] for the constituent chemicals. The mixture reduced serum thyroxine [thyroid hormone] levels at concentrations that were at least an order of magnitude [a factor of 10] below their LOELs. The effects on thyroxine were cumulative (additive) at low doses and synergistic at higher doses. (pg. 124)

This is extraordinarily important information. The IJC is saying that the researcher (Kevin M. Crofton) was able to diminish thyroid hormone levels in the blood of laboratory animals by exposing them to very lox levels of a combination of chemicals. The individual chemicals were administered at levels at least 10 times as low as the amount that is known to cause effects in exposed animals, and the levels of exposures were selected to mimic levels that a human baby would receive from breast milk. The COMBINED exposure caused thyroid hormone levels to decline in the exposed animals. In human babies, sufficient thyroid hormone is essential for early brain development.

5. Summary

The IJC report sums up the new information that has come to light in the last few years:

1. Legacy chemicals are not declining rapidly, if at all, and they are still present at levels that make Great lakes fish unsafe to eat:

"In this biennial cycle [in the last two years] it became clear that our understanding of health hazards associated with 'legacy' contaminants has increased much more rapidly than their levels are currently decreasing. PCB and mercury levels in fish are many times greater than values protective of human health. PCB concentrations in fillets of some large lake trout from Lake Michigan exceed by 40 fold the level which would allow unrestricted consumption." (pg. 128)

2. Fish consumption advisories don't work:

"Despite consumption advisories, many individuals are exposed unnecessarily, and often unconsciously, to toxic contaminants through their diet." (pg. 128)

3. People are being exposed and harmed by breathing the air:

"We have also learned that air transport is an important pathway of exposure and that living near highly contaminated areas increases one's exposure." (pg. 128)

4. A new set of toxic chemicals is now being measured in the Lakes:

"In addition, we have become aware of 'emerging' chemicals that were not previously detected." (pg. 128)

5. Exposure to Mixtures of Chemicals is Harmful:

"There is also a growing awareness of a larger range of developmental and functional health impacts associated with exposure to mixtures of chemicals, including the persistent 'legacy' contaminants and the 'emerging' chemicals." (pg. 128) [The term 'functional health impacts' includes things like kids struggling to keep up in school, or, in the case of fish at least, males taking on some of the characteristics of females.]

"Many 'emerging' chemicals affect the same target organs and/or systems as the 'legacy' chemicals and will contribute to the cumulative toxicity." (pg. 128)

6. A single chemical can have many effects on many parts of the body

"It is now clear that a single chemical can have an impact on multiple-organ systems via several exposure pathways and a number of modes of action, and that those impacts can be expressed in multiple ways." (pg. 128) [Comment: In the good old days (the entire 20th century) a chemical was accused of simply causing cancer or harming the liver or contributing to heart disease, but modern science now reveals that this old view was hopelessly inadequate for describing the how a single chemical (not to mention mixtures) can affect many different bodily systems in many different ways. In a sense, our knowledge has grown rapidly but what has grown most rapidly is our understanding of how little we actually understand about the complex interactions between chemicals, health and behavior.]

The Great Lakes are extraordinarily important because they contain 20% of the world's fresh surface water and 80% of the fresh surface water in North America. That we have contaminated the lakes so thoroughly is an astonishing feat of industrial hubris and stupidity.

The authors of the IJC report understand that only the people who live around the Great Lakes can make the necessary changes to save themselves from an unfolding health disaster. The report asks,

"What evidence of human-health effects will be sufficient to create the political will to clean up the areas that continue to make major contributions to system contamination?" (pg. 128)

And, the report says, "If sufficient resources to support remediation and required protection efforts are to be committed, Great Lakes citizens must understand the risks and demand accountability under the [Great Lakes Water Quality] Agreement for long-term progress and implementation strategies that are protective of human and wildlife The Great Lakes are extraordinarily important because they contain 20% of the world's fresh surface water and 80% of the fresh surface water in North America. That we have contaminated the lakes so thoroughly is an astonishing feat of industrial hubris and stupidity. health and 20% of the world's fresh surface water." (pg. 128)

So there you have it. Basically, to save the Great Lakes from continued decline, citizens have to develop enough clout to overwhelm the political influence of corporate polluters, to force government to adopt a precautionary approach to protect the Lakes.

Last December, citizen groups from around the Great lakes published a report outlining what needs to be done. They agree with the IJC report, that chemical regulation has failed and the proper remedy is to implement a precautionary approach.

However, the Council of Great Lakes Industries, which represents chemical companies and coal-burning utilities, has staked out its position, claiming that even the weak current system is burdensome, oppressive and nightmarish for industrial polluters. The Council says it "fears a more aggressive water quality pact will bring costly new regulations and stifle the regional economy." Furthermore, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement has already "created a bureaucracy and a governance nightmare that is very difficult to maneuver around."

We are wondering if some communities around the Great Lakes might want to consider a new strategy, directly challenging the "rights" of corporations to continue destroying this national treasure.