Canada's waters: Waves of pollution
Bacteria-laden beaches, lakes choked with algae and fish contaminated by industrial waste: these have been symptoms of pollution in the Great Lakes since the late 1950s. With growing threats to drinking water, wildlife populations and human health, governments on both sides of the border took action to reverse the Lakes' decline in the 1970s. Today they supply water to one-third of all Canadians and one-seventh of all Americans. Under the watchful eyes of scientists and environmentalists, the Lakes are slowly becoming great again.
If citizens want to clean up their waterways -- variously described as "a septic tank," "the nation's intestine" and "a chemical sluiceway" -- they must first become aware of pollution. CBC's Matinee with Pat Patterson tackles the problem of our fouled waters.
• Common sources of pollution include litter, municipal waste (sewage), agricultural runoff and industrial waste.
• Pollution is also defined as either "persistent" or "non-persistent."
• Non-persistent pollutants, such as sewage, fertilizers and some industrial waste, break down into their component parts quickly and leave no long-term damage.
• Persistent pollutants degrade much more slowly and can remain intact in the environment for many years. These include pesticides like DDT, petroleum products, radioactive elements, PCBs and some metals like lead and mercury.
• The first sign that Lake Erie was polluted came in 1933 when its western end turned bright green from too much algae. In the next two decades beaches around the lake were routinely closed due to high levels of coliform bacteria.
• In the 1950s the Niagara River, linking lakes Erie and Ontario, began to emit a foul odour. With brown sludgy water and towers of detergent foam, the famous Niagara Falls lost some appeal as a honeymoon spot.
• The first evidence Lake Erie was "dying" came in 1953. A limnologist, or lake researcher, discovered a staggering drop in the number of mayfly larvae at the bottom of Erie. That observation was paired with a proportionate jump in oligchaetes -- "sludge worms" that thrive on very little oxygen.
• Five years later another limnologist discovered a large bottom section that was anoxic, or lacking any oxygen at all. This was highly abnormal.
• In short, Lake Erie was suffering from eutrophication. In this state, an overabundance of algae means an explosion in the number of micro-organisms that feed on it. These organisms in turn consume enough oxygen in a lake to choke out all other forms of life.
• Because the phenomenon of eutrophication was not easily conveyed to the public, science reporters in the early 1960s devised a simpler metaphor. They said Lake Erie's natural life cycle was accelerating and the lake was dying.
• Dr. George Burwash Langford, a guest on this CBC Radio program, was a professor of geology who founded the Great Lakes Institute at the University of Toronto in 1960. Its name and mandate later changed when it merged with the Environmental Sciences and Engineering program in the 1970s and became the Institute of Environmental Studies.
Program: Matinee with Pat Patterson
Broadcast Date: Oct. 26, 1966
Guest(s): Christian de Laet, George Burwash Langford, Don Stephens
Host: Pat Patterson
Last updated: May 6, 2013
Page consulted on May 6, 2013
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