International Joint Commission
Ninth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality

SPECIFIC PERSISTENT TOXIC SUBSTANCES

July 1998

Overview

In the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the governments of the United States and Canada agreed "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem." Under the terms of the Agreement, the two federal governments agreed "to make a maximum effort to develop programs, practices and technology necessary for a better understanding of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem and to eliminate or reduce to the maximum extent practicable the discharge of pollutants into the Great Lakes System."

The International Joint Commission (IJC) is directed to make a full assessment of the progress toward achieving the objectives of the Agreement every two years. The Ninth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality is the Commission's most recent assessment of progress.

The Ninth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality

In July 1998, The International Joint Commission released its Ninth Biennial Report. The goal of the report is to rejuvenate action on the part of governments and bring solutions and resolution to on-going problems and issues affecting the Great Lakes.

In addition to making 19 recommendations that present a number of specific targets and deadlines to help achieve the Agreement's purpose, the report discusses several important issues that must be recognized.

This information sheet is one of seven that highlight important issues discussed in the report.

SPECIFIC PERSISTENT TOXIC SUBSTANCES

Persistent toxic substances are too dangerous to the biosphere and to humans to permit their release in any quantity. Despite sustained effort, resolution of the problems posed by persistent toxic substances has continued to elude society for more than a quarter-century. To illustrate opportunities, the Commission reviewed programs and measures to resolve problems posed by dioxins and furans, mercury, PCBs and radioactivity.

Dioxin-like Substances

The substances that have caused the most injury to health and resources are those with dioxin-like activity. The incidence of injury to health and property can be significantly decreased by reducing exposures.

These substances have been, and still are released into the environment -- both air and water -- primarily as a result of human activity. The legacy of the past is scattered in sediment and in dumps across the Great Lakes basin. Currently, the burning of waste in its various forms -- municipal, medical and hazardous -- as well as certain industrial processes are the most significant sources.

To protect the Great Lakes, continent-wide efforts must continue in order to eliminate atmospheric sources, through a combination of improved control technology and preventive alternative waste management options.

The Commission recommends the following:

  1. Governments adopt a three-part strategy relating to: existing commercial operations, including manufacture, import, use and release into the environment; present day combustion facilities; and the legacy of dioxin-like substances from past human activities. Further, Governments adopt and report on a schedule outlining appropriate measures to be taken.

Mercury

The release of mercury from mercury-cell chlor-alkali plants and other sources contributed to the closure of the lower lakes fishery in 1970. Present-day fish consumption advisories are a reminder than elevated mercury concentrations continue to pose a threat to human health.

Mercury occurs naturally, is found throughout the environment, and, once released as a result of human activity, is easily transported, particularly through the atmosphere, demonstrating the impact of sources worldwide. The U.S. releases approximately 144 tonnes of mercury per year, with combustion sources -- including municipal and medical incineration -- accounting for 87 per cent of the total. The largest U.S. source sector is coal-fired power plants. In Canada, emissions from human activity are approximately 21 tonnes per year, with metallurgical processing accounting for about 55 per cent of the total.

The Commission recommends the following:

  1. Governments and business apply incentive-based approaches to identify and eliminate specific uses of mercury.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls

The adverse impact of PCBs on fish, wildlife and humans was first recognized in the 1960s. Some injury is obvious; other effects, especially on future generations, are more subtle and insidious.

Because of their persistence, PCBs released years ago remain present in Great Lakes sediment, fish and air, especially downwind of urban centres. PCBs continue to enter the environment from insecure landfills, contaminated urban soil, spills from electrical transformers, improper or illegal disposal practices and long-range transport from sources outside the basin.

The challenge is to terminate remaining uses, destroy existing stocks and remove what was released to the environment.

The Commission recommends the following:

  1. Governments develop a detailed program, including benchmarks and schedules, for the systematic destruction of PCBs in storage, in use and in the Great Lakes environment.

Radioactivity

The Commission's Nuclear Task Force has released a detailed report on the status of radioactivity in the Great Lakes Commission believes that there is a strong need for a comprehensive review of all monitoring activities at nuclear facilities in Canada and the United States with a view to making monitoring more accommodating to the needs of the Agreement.

The Commission recommends the following:

  1. Governments comprehensively review all monitoring at nuclear facilities in the Great Lakes basin with a view to making the monitoring more accommodating to the needs of the Agreement.
  2. Governments monitor toxic chemicals used in large quantities at nuclear power plants, identify radioactive forms of the toxic chemicals and analyze their impact on the Great Lakes ecosystem.
  3. Governments investigate and report toxicological and ecological problems associated with tritium, carbon-14, iodine-129, isotopes of plutonium and radium-226.

Scheduled Review of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement has been renegotiated twice in the past 26 years to include current issues such persistent toxic substances. It is scheduled to be reviewed again this year. The Commission firmly believes that the present Agreement is sound, effective and flexible. Review and renegotiation are not necessary. Rather, the governments need to renew and fulfill their commitments and focus on implementation, enforcement and other actions to achieve the Agreement's purpose.

The International Joint Commission (IJC)

IJC was established through the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty of the United States and Canada. The Treaty recognizes that each country may be affected by the others actions in the lake and river systems along their common border; its purpose is to prevent and resolve disputes concerning these boundary waters.

In 1972, the governments of the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This Agreement was superseded in 1978 by a new Agreement. Its purpose "is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem." IJC assesses the effectiveness of programs and progress pursuant to it.

For More Information

Additional information regarding IJC's Ninth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality can be obtained by contacting an IJC office:

Canadian Section
Fabien Lengellé
100 Metcalfe St., 18th Floor
Ottawa, ON K1P 5M1
(613) 995-0088
commission@ottawa.ijc.org

United States Section
Frank Bevacqua
1250 23rd St. N.W., Suite 100
Washington, D.C. 20440
(202) 736-9024
commission@washington.ijc.org

Great Lakes Regional Office
Jennifer Day
In Canada -
100 Ouellette Ave., 8th Floor
Windsor, ON N9A 6T3
(519) 257-6734
In the U.S. -
P.O. Box 32869
Detroit, MI 48232
(313) 226-2170 Ext. 6734
commission@windsor.ijc.org