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Chemicals in your water:
A little is too much

By Ulli Diemer


Seven News, June 1984


Is Great Lakes water dangerous? The question is a vital one for the 37 million of us — Canadians and Americans — who depend on the Great Lakes for our drinking water. The question is also not an easy one to answer, but it is one that is being asked with increasing frequency and concern.

The concern focuses not only on what the water is like now, but also on what may be happening to it. There are, for example, some 35,000 chemicals in use today which have been classified as hazardous to human health. The International Joint Commission has already found more than 460 different chemicals in the Great Lakes Basin, including some of the most toxic ones in existence. Fifty-three different chemicals have been detected in Toronto’s drinking water alone. More appear every year.

These chemicals are present in small quantities. Too small, according to government bodies, to be a danger to health. Many people, however, are not reassured by the reassurances. They question whether it is possible to know at what levels such substances become dangerous, when so many of them are new and almost unknown. How do we know how much is too much?

Another concern is the simple fact that the quantities of many of these chemicals are increasing, year after year. Perhaps the amounts of dioxin, or mirex, or PCB, are not yet dangerous. How many years do we have before these chemicals, many of which do not break down, do reach dangerous levels?

Then there is the fact that these substances, though diluted by the lakes, are not spread out evenly throughout them. They are present, for example, in significantly higher quantities in coastlines adjacent to industrial uses, such as in the Toronto harbour.

Another factor that creates concern is the ability of chemicals to combine with each other producing new and unknown substances with unknown qualities.

Finally, there is question of the long-range effect of chemicals on the human tissues in which they accumulate. Will we be surprised to learn some years down the road that some of them are indeed linked to cancers which only appear after relatively long periods of time? Or that they accelerate health problems linked to air pollution or heart disease?

Questions like these focus the concern of many on the seeming complacency and immobility of governments and economic structures on both sides of the undefended border. For there is no question that the problem is worsening year after year. The Niagara River alone, for example, has over 200 chemical dumps located close to its shore, many of them leaking into the river, mingling their toxic substances with those discharged from 100 active industries also along the river.

Daunting as the problem is, it is possible to do something about it if enough pressure can be brought to bear. As a first defensive sort of measure, environmental groups are urging that better water treatment methods be installed which are better designed to handle chemical contaminants. (Present methods are primarily directed at bacteria.) Some people are turning to bottled spring water as a personal alternative.

Beyond this, however, it is necessary to do something about the causes. In principle, this is not impossible. It is not necessary to dump chemical wastes irresponsibly — it is only often cheaper to do so. This kind of blinkered accounting is obviously against the interests of almost everyone, and environmental groups are bursting with suggestions about alternatives. To date, the inertia, or the balance of power, still lies with the economic system that allows the pollution to keep on happening. But there may come a point when enough people are upset enough, and active enough, about what is happening to their environment, to shift that balance decisively.

One group that is working on the issue of water quality is Pollution Probe, 12 Madison Ave., Toronto, Ont. M5R 2S1, (416) 978-7152).


Published in Seven News, June 1984




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