Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA): Failing the Great Lakes

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The Great Lakes are unique, valuable, and vulnerable. Unfortunately, the world’s largest fresh water resource has become a major “sink” for a toxic stew of chemicals that end up in our environment and wildlife and—ultimately—in all of us. The widespread contamination of the Great Lakes ecosystems illustrates how the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our nations’ primary law governing chemical safety, has failed to protect public health, our communities, and our valuable land and water resources.

TSCA—intended to give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to regulate toxic chemicals—simply does not work. Under this law, the EPA has required testing of fewer than 200 of the 62,000 chemicals that were “grandfathered” in under the law when it was passed in 1976. TSCA does not require chemical companies to prove that the chemicals they make are safe before they end up in common products, our bodies, and important ecosystems like the Great Lakes.


There are 37 Areas of Concern (AOCs) in the Great Lakes (indicated by the red dots on the map). These are places where chemical contamination of sediments from the lakes has seriously endangered the quality of life for people and wildlife. Click the map to view a larger image.

Contaminated land and water

TSCA has failed to prevent the Great Lakes waterways and ecosystems from being contaminated by toxic chemicals. While the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (instigated by state Governors) has started to help reduce many persistent pollutants in the Great Lakes, such as mercury, lead, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), most emerging contaminants have not yet been adequately addressed. These newer sources of contamination include bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, alkyphenols, 5-methyl- 1H-benzotriazole, synthetic musks, Triclosan, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and other flame retardants.

Many of these emerging chemicals of concern come from non-point sources. Some leach from landfills, polluting lakes, rivers, streams, and ultimately contaminating the Great Lakes. Many chemicals are also widely used in both consumer products and in industrial applications, and are released during production, processing, use, and disposal. However, these chemicals are not yet, for the most part, regulated by the U.S. under TSCA. According to Environment Canada, emerging contaminants like BPA have been found in surface water, groundwater, drinking water, aquatic species, sewage sludge, soil, sediments, and other spots in the Great Lakes basin.

  • In Lake Superior, the levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemical (PBT), doubled every 3-4 years between 1980 and 2000. (Zhu. LY; Hites, RA. 2004. Temporal trends and spatial distributions of brominated flame retardants in archived fishes from the Great Lakes, Environ Sci Technol 38(10): 2779-84.)
  • There are 362 chemical contaminants identified in the Great Lakes system by the International Joint Commission (IJC). Only one third of these contaminants have been evaluated for their potential toxic effects on wildlife and human health, in large part because of the major gaps in TSCA. (Persistant organic pollutants. (2003, April 28). Retrieved (2010, February 8) from http://www.great-lakes.net/humanhealth/other/pops.html.)
  • Dangerously high concentrations of mercury, lead, PCBs and Hexchlorobenzene (HCB) have been observed in Lake Erie over the past 30 years. Despite being regulated over 30 years ago, PCBs continue to persist at high levels. (Forsythe, KW; Marvin, CH. 2005. Analyzing the spatial distribution of sediment contamination in the lower Great lakes. Water Quality Research Journal of Canada. 40 (1): 389-401.)
  • One-third of the 1,305 superfund sites in the U.S. are located in the Great Lakes Region. Superfund sites are those deemed to be the worst hazardous waste sites in the country. Many have the potential to infiltrate local drinking water sources and harm residents.
  • Over 2,000 miles, or 20% of the shoreline of the Great Lakes are impaired due to sediment contamination. (Huber, K. (1997). Wisconsin mercury sourcebook: a guide to help your community identify & reduce releases of elemental mercury. U.S. EPA. Retrieved (2010, February 8) from http://www.epa.gov/ glnpo/bnsdocs/hgsbook/section1.pdf.)
The worst of the worst chemicals: The threat to the Great Lakes

Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978 and the subsequent Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy, the U.S. and Canada pledged to stop persistent toxic substances from being discharged into the Great Lakes. That goal is no less important today.

Persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals (PBTs) are uniquely dangerous because they pose a triple threat. They persist in the environment for long periods of time and can be transported long distances; they accumulate in living organisms and increase in concentration as they move up the food chain; and, they are highly toxic, often at very low levels of exposure. Because they exhibit all three of these hazardous properties, PBTs are inherently unsafe.

Unfortunately, PBT chemicals continue to pose an economic threat to the region’s $7 billion fisheries industry and $16 billion tourism industry, while also endangering public health. The legacy of contamination from PBTs already released to the Great Lakes will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up.

Contaminated people and wildlife

Not only have chemicals harmed Great Lake’s water quality, they have also built up in people and wildlife. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), for example, were banned under the original TSCA in 1976, but are still found in people and wildlife today.

  • Mercury levels in the Great Lakes are high enough to cause developmental defects and neurological problems in children of some fish-consuming parents. (Mohapatra, S. (2009). Mercury in the Great Lakes. The Encyclopedia of Earth. Retrieved (2010, February 8) from http://www.eoearth.org/ article/Mercury_in_the_Great_Lakes.)
  • All of the Great Lakes and their connecting channels are currently under fish consumption advisories for one or more toxic chemicals—including mercury, PCBs, dioxins, and chlordane. There have been at least 1,500 advisories against eating fish in the Great Lakes.
  • Studies of Great Lakes indicator species (herring gulls, bald eagles, snapping turtles) reveal that the following health risks occur in Great Lakes wildlife with greater severity and frequency in contaminated sites like Areas of Concern (AOC): endocrine disorders, metabolic diseases, altered immune function, reproductive impairment, developmental toxicity, and cancer. Similar diseases occur with greater frequency in human populations near AOCs. (Fox, GA. 2001. Wildlife as sentinels of human health effects in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Environmental Health Perspectives 109: 853-861.)
  • The sex ratio of males to females in a First Nation community near Sarnia, Ontario has dropped to fewer than 35% boys. This is significantly below normal. The community lives in close proximity to a large petrochemical complex and researchers propose that chemical exposures may be contributing to the decline. (Mackenzie, CA; A Lockridge and M Keith. 2005. Declining Sex Ratio in a First Nation Community. Environmental Health Perspectives 113: 1295-1298.)

Failing chemical policy is holding back economic development

A recent report by the Brookings Institution states that if $26 billion were to be invested in restoring the Great Lakes, the region would see a return of $50 billion. These profits would be seen in the increased value of real estate and tourism, an increase in fishing, as well as a reduction in spending on municipal services such as water treatment plants. The report predicts that, because reducing pollution would make the region more attractive to businesses and workers, clean-up efforts would spur significant new economic activity. (Austin, John C.; Anderson, Soren; Courant, Paul N.; Litan, Robert E. 2007. Healthy Waters, Strong Economy: The Benefits of Restoring the Great Lakes Ecosystem. The Brookings Institution.)

All of the Great Lakes and their connecting channels are currently under fish consumption advisories for one or more toxic chemicals—including mercury, PCBs, dioxins, and chlordane. There have been at least 1,500 advisories against eating fish in the Great Lakes.

In addition, the Great Lakes is rapidly becoming the national epicenter for green chemistry, an approach to the design, manufacture and use of chemical products to intentionally reduce or eliminate chemical hazards. States like Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York have made significant advances in green chemistry through state policies, private investments, and academic research. The Great Lakes region, in the heart of the rust belt, may have the most to gain from a national commitment to safer alternatives to dangerous chemicals.

What does this mean for TSCA reform?

The chemical contamination and cleanup of the Great Lakes tells us not only how TSCA is failing to protect people and natural resources, but also what some of the most effective fixes of TSCA would be. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Representatives Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Henry Waxman (D-CA) have introduced legislation to reform our out of date system. We want to ensure final legislation includes the following protections for the Great Lakes:

  1. Immediate action on chemicals we know are dangerous. Persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals (PBTs), such as lead, flame retardants, and mercury, are uniquely hazardous, build up in places like the Great Lakes and end up in our bodies. The EPA Administrator should have the authority to immediately act on chemicals like PBTs and other chemicals we know are extremely dangerous, like asbestos and formaldehyde. Green chemistry research should be expanded and safer chemicals favored over those with known health hazards.
  2. Require basic information to indentify chemicals of concern. Chemical manufacturers should be held responsible for the safety of their products and should be required to provide information on the health and environmental hazards associated with their chemicals. The public, workers and businesses should have full access to information about the safety of chemicals to avoid future Great Lakes contamination. In addition, the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations for reforming risk assessment at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should be adopted.
  3. Protect all people and vulnerable groups using the best science. Chemicals should meet a standard of safety for all people, including children, pregnant women and workers. The extra burden of toxic chemical exposure on people of color, low income and indigenous communities must be reduced. For example, fish-dependent native communities in the Great Lakes communities should be protected.

The Great Lakes may be uniquely vulnerable to the effects of chemicals. However, with effective TSCA reform, the Lakes can rebound and once again be the economic and ecological driver for the region.

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