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Unseen and green: Lake Erie and our health

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/06/13 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Water

I just enjoyed a sip of Cleveland water, just like you and 2 million others who turn on the tap. It may look clear, but will I think about what’s going into my body a little longer after this morning’s session about plastics and “dead zones” in the lake? You bet.

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A “battle” over ours and Lake Erie’s health are the topic of the 2013 Conservation Symposium at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Dr. Sherri Mason, Associate Professor at SUNY Fredonia, dropped the biggest bomb about what she caught in the nets when they skimmed Lake Erie last year. Thousands of tiny plastic balls—most likely from consumer products like facial cleansers with exfoliating "microbeads"—make up 60% of the plastic found in Lake Erie, the source of our drinking water. Coal ash, most likely from power plants, made up 20% of what they thought was plastic.

Mason gets asked all the time why this matters.

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t like plastic in my water,” said Mason, a young Texas native. “I also don’t like scrubbing my face with plastic.”

Next she hopes to study how plastic “bio-accumulates” or moves up the food chain from plankton to fish to human. If fish in Lake Erie are like their cousins in the Pacific Ocean where The Five Gyre Project discovered a giant garbage patch, bits and pieces of plastic are in the stomachs of fish being served on Cleveland dinner plates. A simple solution would be a consumer ban on products like cleansers, toothpastes, and boat cleaners that contain microbeads (check labels for words like exfoliants, microbeads and polyethelyne). To keep plastic out of Lake Erie and the ocean, consider switching from plastic water bottles and plastic bags to reusable versions, Mason said. Plastic bags are still killing millions of sea turtles who think its food (jelly fish).

It’s also important because the Great Lakes nourish a diversity of fish and wildlife, 40 million people and support the world’s third largest economy at $2 trillion.

Lake Erie’s claim as “the walleye capital of the world” which accounts for half of the $7 billion Great Lakes fishery industry’s annual catch is, ironically, helped and yet perched on the edge of a knife because of the way we grow food. Conventional farming with synthetic fertilizers are causing massive dead zones in Lake Erie but also providing algal blooms that support the most productive fishery in the Great Lakes. There’s no telling if the blooms will reach a tipping point where the big fish are endangered, but in the last five years, the damaging kind of algae have outpaced the good kind. The dead zone in Lake Erie is mostly a result of phosphates washing off of farms and suburban lawns.

Dr. Jeffrey Reutter has been studying the link between land-use in Northeast Ohio and the health of the lake since the 1970s as director of OSU’s Stone Lab. Farming and the obsession with green lawns have taken us back to the epidemic 1970s levels of contamination when industry pollution caused dead zones, Reutter confirmed.

The take aways for individuals who want to do something? Cut back or out synthetic fertilizer on your lawn (reportedly the lawncare company Scotts has agreed to stop using phosphates in their fertilizer). And support local organic farms until the big agriculture businesses in Ohio and the Great Lakes clean up their act.

“There’s really two ways to control this,” he concludes. "Either we make it colder or we control levels of phosphorous. Tell me, which do you think is easier?”

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