The dirt on Lake Michigan
Written by The DePaulia   
Saturday, 30 September 2006 15:14

There is nowhere better to enjoy Chicago's skyline than on one of the city's many beaches. On the morning of Sept. 17, 29 volunteers painstakingly restored the 12th Street, Oak Street and Pratt Boulevard beaches to their original, garbage free states. The volunteers participated in International Cleanup Day, an event sponsored by the Ocean Conservancy Organization and the Alliance for the Great Lakes Adopt-a-Beach program.

In total, volunteers cleaning the 12th Street Beach collected 154 pounds of garbage and recyclable material, including 2,715 cigarette butts, 531 discarded food wrappers and 243 aluminum cans, according to the Chicago Tribune.

According to the Ocean Conservancy’s "Pocket Guide to Marine Debris," "Every piece of litter has a person’s face behind it."

The Organization has four main goals: to restore sustainable American fisheries, protect marine wildlife from human impact, conserve special ocean places and to reform the government for better ocean stewardship.

Chicago can boast having one of the world’s cleanest urban waterfronts, coming in second to Stockholm. However, The Alliance for Great Lakes and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designed the Lake Michigan Mass Balance Study to measure the amount of representative pollutants entering Lake Michigan though the surrounding rivers and air. This study will allow the EPA to make long-range predictions of the effects of pollutant decreases and increases that move though the lake (called cycling), and how pollutants become available to fish and marine plant life.

Water samples collected on days of heavy rainfall and snow melt (when pollutants are most washed into the lake), atmospheric pollution samples taken on land and samples taken from the lake sediments have put Lake Michigan under scrutiny for four specific types of pollutants: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, trans-nonachlor and altrazine.

From 1929 to 1977, PCBs were used as sealants, coolants, hydraulic fluids, carbonless paper, adhesive paints, pesticides, printing inks, rubber and plastics. Banned in 1977, 450 million pounds of PCB were released to the environment. Despite a 20 year ban, PCBs remains in earth’s soil, air and water, and contribute to wildlife problems.

There is evidence to suggest that human contamination can result in cancer and immune, reproductive and nervous system complications.

Mercury was once used by the pulp and paper industry, but is now the product of medical and municipal incineration, coal fired power plants, wastewater discharges and agricultural runoff. The U.S. alone annually releases 144 metric tons of mercury into the environment. Once released in Lake Michigan, mercury is transformed by bacteria to methylmercury, which may remain in the environment, and top predators such as salmon, trout, gulls and humans eventually can accumulate high levels of contamination.

Trans-nonachlor is a major component of the pesticide chlordane. Before its ban in 1988, chlordane was used in agricultural crops such as corn and citrus, and used for termite control. Altrazine is used as an herbicide for many farms in the Lake Michigan Basin. This chemical runs into surrounding rivers and tributary systems hundreds of miles away from Lake Michigan during the spring rainy seasons, and can even be evaporated from the soil into the air, and back down again in rain or snow. Altrazine is effective in blocking a plant’s ability to carry out photosynthesis.

"It’s very important with young kids," said Cheryl Mell, vice president of conservation education at Shedd Aquarium. "We want them to have a love of the lakes, to appreciate the beauty of the lakes."

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