Lake Lessons: Why are there medicines in Lake Michigan?

November 11th, 2015 by

 After the third or fourth hour working on a paper, the practiced and true route of an English major like myself is to pop an Advil to quell the emerging headache and drink a few cups of coffee to keep writing. Now, as an intern at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG), I am learning that along with a perfectly finished paper, I am inadvertently creating a harmful effect in a body of water quite near us. The drugs we put in our bodies end up in other places in addition to juicing our creativity–some end up flushed into Lake Michigan, along with other bodies of water. In 2010, IISG funded a study in which scientists took samples from Lake Michigan and found an interesting presence of drugs and chemicals that did not belong in the water. 

Our bodies do not effectively digest the drugs that we ingest and, as a result, we excrete and flush them down the toilet. Then, the wastewater treatment plants do not always effectively remove the drugs and their by-products.
Wastewater treatment plants are designed to effectively filter used water and send it back into lakes and streams, but Lake Michigan, along with other water bodies, has been receiving outpourings of various medicines and personal care products, and into its clear waters for years. Studies done in 2013 found that only a few of the drugs that are flushed away are treated by wastewater treatment plants; the rest wind up undissolved in Lake Michigan where they remain, due to the fact that the active pharmaceutical ingredients remain intact. Researchers have found drugs as far as two miles away from sewage plants, suggesting that the lake was not diluting the compounds.
Why are these treatment plants, which have been designed specifically to filter wastewater, not effectively targeting and getting rid of the medicinal pollutants before they hit the sunny, boat populated shores of Lake Michigan? The unfortunate fact is that the treatment facilities were designed with other priorities in mind, and their technology is not always up to date. While the plants are effectively filtering out the trash and waste that was always evident in wastewater, only some drugs are being filtered out.
Drugs that are found in wastewater include commonly used medicines and hormones such as caffeine, acetaminophen, and estriol. They do not cause a disastrous problem though, due to their easy break down. On the other hand, many antibacterial compounds, found in soaps, toothpastes, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatory drugs, do not dissolve as easily. These compounds may cause issues for both the wildlife and humans who come into contact with the water.   
There have been some effects of the water’s contamination measured in the lake’s wildlife. For example, studies show that a certain type of diabetes medication found in Lake Michigan has been affecting the hormonal system of fish that are exposed to it. To be specific, the Type 2 diabetes medication, Metformin, is disrupting male fathead minnows’ endocrine systems and thus affecting their procreation with female minnows. Other changes that wildlife are enduring are still under observation.
Wildlife in the water has constant exposure to this pollution. On the other hand, humans will not see immediate impacts but rather long-term changes, depending on each individuals contact with the polluted water.
As of now, Lake Michigans water has not yet been proven to dangerously affect humans. The doses of each medicine are low in the great, large body of water. And there is no data that shows what effect such low doses have on people who may accidentally ingest the water when swimming in the lake, or whose cities may use the lake water as their water source. On the other hand, there is also such a large variety of medicines and personal care products in the water that the intermingling may prove a threat to our health down the road. However, the World Health Organization and the Environmental Protection Agency conclude that no immediate threat is posed to humans.
The treatment plants do, in fact, remove large quantities of medication from the water; however, since many drugs are coming in such a constant manner, it becomes harder to target the pollutants at a 100 percent efficiency rate. The recent reports of 2013 demonstrate a correlation between Lake Michigan pollution, and societys constant use of prescribed medicines. Because many people are ingesting more drugs, more drug compounds end up in the water. People are also not familiar with the correct and environmentally efficient way to get rid of unwanted drugs. Many people naively flush the remnants down the toilet and flush their responsibility away with the drugs. But for the lake and its inhabitants, the issues are only beginning.


-Olivia Widalski, IISG intern

This is the first article in the series Lake Lessons written by Olivia about the issues surrounding pharmaceutical pollution and disposal. 




South Carolina study offers more insight into microbead impacts

November 17th, 2014 by
Microbeads have attracted a lot of public and political attention in the Great Lakes region since Sam Mason and her lab first discovered the tiny beads in staggering numbers in lakes Huron, Superior, and Erie in 2012. Since then, sampling excursions on the remaining lakes—conducted with help from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and 5 Gyres—have turned up similar findings.

In many ways, the results of these studies raise more questions than they ask. One of the most important, though, is “What effect do microbeads and other plastic pollutants have on Great Lakes food webs and ecosystems?” Research into this question has only just begun, but years of studies in the oceans provide some insight. Some of these latest findings come from our friends at South Carolina Sea Grant

From Coastal Heritage

John Weinstein is studying how grass shrimp (Palaemonetes pugio) respond to a diet of plastic beads. A crustacean about the size of half of a shelled peanut, a grass shrimp consumes microalgae that grow on plant detritus—especially decomposing saltmarsh stems called “wrack”—along estuaries and coasts, but it’s also a predator on a wide variety of small animals. 

Because of its abundance, sensitivity, and ecological importance in southeastern U.S. estuaries, the grass shrimp is often used to study the effects of pollution in the field and laboratory. 

In Weinstein’s lab, Austin Gray, a graduate student in biology at The Citadel, has been feeding grass shrimp two types of beads: one a bright green and the other one translucent.  

The green beads are polyethylene, the type of plastic used in plastic bags, bottles, plastic wrap and other films for food preservation, and many other products. Polyethylene is the most common type of plastic found in marine debris around the world. 

The translucent beads are polypropylene, a type of plastic used in bottle caps, candy- or chip-wrappers, and food containers. Polypropylene is the second most common type of plastic found in marine debris. 

In a lab dish, Austin Gray deposits translucent 75-micron beads. But a visitor looks in the dish and can’t find a single bead. Under the dissecting microscope, though, dozens of tiny spheres suddenly appear. To put it in perspective, an item at about 40 microns is the width of two spooning human hairs. 

Gray fed 16 grass shrimp a diet of brine shrimp mixed in with plastic beads. Each grass shrimp was isolated in water that was changed every other day. Eight animals were fed polyethylene beads and eight were fed polypropylene beads. After six days, all of the 16 shrimp were dead. 

Dissecting the animals, Gray found plastic beads in their guts and gills. One individual had 10 tiny beads in its gut and 16 in its gills. 

The gut blockages, though, were deadlier. The grass shrimp could still take in water through their partly blocked gills. But they stopped eating with clogged guts—or couldn’t eat—and died. 

“In my mind,” says Weinstein, “it’s consistent with starvation. The more particles in guts, the more quickly the grass shrimp die.

Concern about results like these has led Illinois to become the first state to ban the sale of microbeads in personal care products. The law, passed in June, is slated to take full effect in 2019. Similar legislation has also been considered in New York and California. 

Click on the link above to read the full article.  

***Photo: Collecting plastic samples in southern Lake Michigan in 2013. 

In the news: EPA takes two Michigan sites off list of toxic hot spots

November 3rd, 2014 by
After decades of remediation work, two Michigan sites are no longer considered Areas of Concern (AOCs). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officially removed Deer Lake in the Lake Superior basin and White Lake in the Lake Michigan Basin from the list of toxic hot spots last week. 

These are the third and fourth U.S. sites to be delisted since a 1987 cleanup agreement with Canada identified areas hit hardest by legacy pollutants like PCBs and mercury. The Oswego River in New York became the first in 2006, and Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle Bay was delisted last year. 

From the Detroit Free Press

The Deer Lake AOC, along the southern shore of Lake Superior on the Upper Peninsula, was listed because of mercury contamination that leached into water flowing through an abandoned iron mine, as well as other pollutants. Mercury contamination in fish—and reproductive problems—also were documented in animals and birds, including bald eagles. 

The remediation efforts included a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant for $8 million that helped pay for a project diverting water from Partridge Creek. It previously fed the stream flowing through old mine workings under Ishpeming, which then ran into another creek and into Deer Lake. 

The White Lake AOC was on Lake Michigan in Muskegon County and had been contaminated by pollution—especially organic solvents—from tannery operations, chemical manufacturing and other sources, degrading fish and wildlife habitats.

A $2.5-million grant was used to remove contaminated sediment and restore shoreline, with more than 100,000 cubic yards being removed. Read more

More than two dozen AOCs remain throughout the Great Lakes states. But as many as 10 are targeted for completion in the next five years thanks in part to funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which will enter its second phase next year. 

Two of the sites slated for delisting are the Buffalo and Grand Calumet rivers, where IISG’s Caitie McCoy has partnered with federal, state, and local groups under the Great Lakes Legacy Act to connect nearby communities with the remediation and restoration. A big part of this work has focused on integrating environmental cleanup projects into the classroom with place-based curriculum and stewardship projects. 

***Deer Lake in Ishpeming. Credit: Stephanie Swart, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. 

Take a minute to learn about pollution prevention

September 11th, 2014 by
Laura Kammin, our pollution prevention specialist, has some exciting news. Let’s let her tell you about it:

If you only had a minute, what would you say?
Just one minute to explain what pharmaceutical waste is and how people can help reduce it. That was the challenge posed by our new pollution prevention team members Erin Knowles and Adrienne Gulley. 
Challenge accepted! Here it is, the first installment of the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Pollution Prevention Minute.


We know it’s a long name. But don’t worry, the content isn’t. They’re one—ok, maybe sometimes closer to two—minute videos that give easy-to-understand answers to some of the more complicated questions surrounding the use, storage, and disposal of pharmaceuticals and personal care products.
Why videos? We are always getting asked questions like “what happens to the medicine that gets collected?” and “what are microbeads?” We think these new videos are a fun way to share the answers.
And be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel and watch for the next episode of IISG’s Pollution Prevention Minute.  

Lake Erie “dead zone” research includes work by IISG specialist

March 3rd, 2014 by
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s Tomas Höök, associate director for research, was part of a team of researchers involved in a comprehensive study on Lake Erie’s health and measures needed to protect it.
“The report from the multi-institution EcoFore-Lake Erie project states that a 46 percent reduction in the amount, or load, of phosphorus pollution would be needed to shrink Lake Erie’s Central Basin hypoxic zone to a size last seen in the mid-1990s—a time that coincided with the recovery of several recreational and commercial fisheries in the lake’s west and central basins.
Phosphorus is a nutrient used in crop fertilizers. Excess phosphorus washes off croplands during rainstorms and flows downstream in rivers that feed the Great Lakes. Once in the lakes, phosphorus can trigger algae blooms. When the algae die and sink to the lake bottom, oxygen-consuming bacteria feed on them and create hypoxic zones in the process. Many fish shun these oxygen-starved waters, which significantly reduce the amount of suitable habitat available to the fish.
The study, accepted for publication in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Great Lakes Research, calls for Central Basin phosphorus reductions considerably higher than other recent recommendations, including a proposal issued last year by the Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force aimed at avoiding Western Basin toxic algae blooms. The new report is a synthesis of the major findings from the EcoFore-Lake Erie project, created in 2005 and supported by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research.”
Read the rest of the article at the link above.

In the news: River otters tell the tale of chemicals affecting the environment

February 11th, 2014 by
Illinois river otters are just one of the susceptible organisms in the local environment, and a recent study is showing that they are indicating some very high levels of dangerous toxins (including a banned insecticide). 
“‘Thus otters serve as biomonitors – organisms that contain information on the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the environment – of wildlife exposure,’ according to a new study. They also serve as biomonitors for human health because the same toxic chemicals found in otters have also been found in people who eat contaminated fish.
The study published in the journal ‘Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety’ found high concentrations of chemical compounds in the livers of 23 otters in central Illinois.
Especially troubling were the highest concentrations of dieldrin ever reported in otters anywhere in the United States, said lead author Samantha Carpenter, a wildlife technical assistant at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Dieldrin is one of the organochlorine insecticides banned in 1978. More than three decades later, high levels of the chemicals remain in river sediments and accumulate in the fish that otters and people may eat.
The compound has been linked to neurological, behavioral and immune-suppression problems in wildlife. Scientific studies disagree on adverse human effects, but some studies have linked dieldrin to asthma, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer, Carpenter said.”
Read the complete article at the link above.

In the news: Great Lakes mayors target plastic pollution from personal care products

November 11th, 2013 by

Recent research on Great Lakes contaminants has shown that microplastics – small beads of plastic used in many exfoliants, toothpastes, and other products – are contributing to pollution levels. As a result, mayors near the Great Lakes are calling on manufacturers to remove the plastics from their products. 


“The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, representing more than 100 Canadian and U.S. cities, is urging industry and governments to have microplastics removed from personal care products.

Its call came as a study on microplastic pollution was published based on sampling last summer on Lake Huron, Erie and Superior led by Sherri Mason, a professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

‘It takes that kind of initiative to get things to change,’ she said of the mayor’s support for the issue.
‘It’s not so much about cleaning it up, as it is about stopping it at its source.’

Mason returned to the lakes for seven weeks this summer to collect more samples, including one from the St. Clair River at Sarnia that will be analyzed as the study continues.

Samples taken in 2012 included green, blue and purple coloured spheres, similar to polypropylene and polyethylene microbeads in consumer products, such as facial cleaners.”

Read the complete article at the link above.

In the news: Great Lakes microplastic pollution research recently published

November 4th, 2013 by
Earlier this year, Anjanette Riley and Laura Kammin from IISG participated in one of several research excursions on the Great Lakes, collecting samples to analyze the microplastic content of the water. Related research was recently published, and the findings are surprising. 

“Take a dip in lakes Erie, Huron, or Superior and you will be swimming in more than just water. According to a recently published study, these lakes contain an unexpectedly large amount of floating plastic debris. Even more surprising, much of what the researchers found were microplastic fragments and pellets like the kind used in toothpastes and facial and body scrubs. At less than one millimeter, these tiny pieces of plastic are too small to be filtered out at wastewater treatment facilities before the water is released into the lakes.

Researchers from 5 Gyres Institute and State University of New York (SUNY) Fredonia made the discovery in 2012 after collecting a total of 21 samples from the lakes. They found plastics in all but one sample. Of the three lakes, Lake Erie had the highest concentrations of plastics, roughly 90 percent of the total amount measured. The authors speculate that the high concentrations may be the result of currents carrying the plastics from the cities of Detroit, Cleveland, and Erie. Back in the lab, further inspection revealed that along with the microplastics, eight of the samples contained coal ash and coal fly ash (produced by coal-burning power plants).”

Read the complete post at the link above.

Lake Michigan sampling trip reaps plastic microbeads

August 14th, 2013 by
Last week, IISG’s Anjanette Riley and Laura Kammin set sail on Lake Michigan to learn more about plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. Anjanette wrapped up the trip by writing about the experience: 

The sampling process started like many do – with a countdown that sets off a whirlwind of action. On three, some in the 5-person crew would hoist a 4-foot-long trawl overboard while another recorded the time, the boat’s location and speed, and the direction and force of the wind. Another person was responsible for adjusting the sails and the boat’s direction to keep it moving at a slow-but-steady speed. The next 30 minutes—as exact as possible—would be a bit calmer. The trawl skimmed the surface of Lake Michigan, trapping everything that crossed its path in a narrow net. And the crew got ready to process the sample. The real work started when the trawl was pulled from water. Everything caught in the net—large and small, natural and man-made—had to be moved to a plastic bottle so its contents could be examined later. It sounds simple enough, but the netting is small and getting tiny beads of plastic or nearly-microscopic animals into the bottle required a multi-step process that took time. Step 1: use a spray gun to get everything out of the net and into a tightly-woven sieve. Step 2: spray everything to one side of the sieve. Step 3: spoon the larger contents into a plastic bottle. Step 4: drain everything else into the bottle. Step 5: pour in some rubbing alcohol. Step 6: label the plastic bottle with the sample number and tape it up to prevent it from spilling. And repeat. 

During the three days Laura and I were aboard the sailboat Free at Last, the crew collected 16 samples from all across southern Lake Michigan. With us on the boat was Stiv Wilson, communications director for the plastics research group 5 Gyres, Nick Williamson, an undergraduate research assistant at SUNY Fredonia, and Conor Smith, the ship captain. Together, we made a triangle from the Chicago area to just south of the Wisconsin border to South Haven, Michigan and back, collecting water samples about every hour and a half.  

We found bits and pieces of plastic in several of the samples. Most of what we saw were tiny microbeads, like the kind used as exfoliants in face and body washes. On the second day, though, we pulled a plastic cigarette wrapper from the lake. Beyond the reach of the trawl, we also saw balloons, plastic bags and bottle lids, a straw, and a couple other pieces of unrecognizable plastics riding the waves. But these were just the things large enough to be seen. We won’t know for sure how much plastic is in the lake until Sherri Mason and her research team at SUNY Fredonia examine the samples under a microscope over the next few months.  

The findings from this trip will be added to the results of previous research excursions on northern Lake Michigan and each of its sister lakes to get a more complete picture of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. Initial results have already revealed that the lakes have a higher concentration than some parts of the world’s oceans, where plastics have been a major environmental concern for years. 

Because plastics float and break down very slowly over time, everything from chemical contaminants to bacteria and invasive species can latch on and catch a ride to new ecosystems. These sampling trips are the first to examine whether the Great Lakes may be facing the same ecological threat. 

You can learn more about this topic in the Chicago Tribune.
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