Experimental lakes closure threatens antibacterial study

Unique Canadian research into the environmental effects of an antibacterial agent used in 300 consumer products is in jeopardy because of a decision to close the Experimental Lakes Area.

Research looks at effects of microscopic 'nanosilver' used in 300 consumer products

Scientists set-up a raft with one of a series of micro-meterological stations on a lake in the Experimental Lakes Area in this undated photo. University researchers say important work will be lost if Ottawa doesn't reverse a decision to end the facility's funding. (Experimental Lakes Area handout/Canadian Press)

Unique Canadian research into the environmental effects of an antibacterial agent is now in jeopardy because of a decision to close the Experimental Lakes Area.

Researchers say their three-year investigation into nanosilver on freshwater ecosystems is on hold.

Nanosilver are microscopic particles of silver that have antibacterial properties. They are now used in more than 300 consumer products including underwear, socks, dishwashers, kids toys and medical equipment. But there is growing evidence that nanosilver is highly toxic to algae and natural bacteria at base of the foodchain in freshwater systems.

Professor Chris Metcalfe from Trent University heads up a team of researchers that is studying the larger effects of nanosilver.

"We came to the conclusion that perhaps the addition of nanosilver to the environment, which would happen if for instance you've had these textiles washed in your home and then discharged into your sewage, perhaps the addition of nansilver to the aquatic environment might be harmful in having effects on the whole ecosystem."

In 2011 Metcalfe received a three-year grant from Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to study the environmental effects of nanosilver. They were going to use the Experimental Lakes Area to take the first-ever look at how it affects the overall aquatic ecosystems.

But the federal government plans to close down the ELA by next March has put the research on hold.

"You can't do that work in a lab, you can't take a look at a whole ecosystem," Metcalfe told reporters in Ottawa. "What we were proposing to do was add nanosilver to a small lake in the Experimental Lakes Area and then to observe what those responses might be."

The ELA is a series of more than 50 small lakes south of Kenora in Northern Ontario. The area has been used for ground-breaking research for more than 40 years. Scientists working at the ELA discovered for the first time that phosphates in laundry detergent can turn lakes green with algae and that estrogen from birth control pills flushed into municipal wastewater systems can destroy fish.

University of Ottawa biology professor Vance Trudeau says the ELA research also has an big impact on humans.

"Lab studies are now showing some of these chemcials bio-accumulate. What are the impacts on fish? What are the impacts on humans? What we learn from the ELA can translate into understanding emerging problems in humans," he told reporters. "This is world class, why are we closing it? Why close world-class facilties for $2 million?"

Ontario and Manitoba ask for extension

The federal government says it's closing the ELA to save the $2-million-a-year operating costs. It's hoping to find an outside organization that will run the facility in its stead.

But both the Manitoba and Ontario governments want Ottawa to hold off and say the March 2013 deadline is too fast.

Manitoba's Minister of Conservation and Water Stewardship Gord MacIntosh and Ontario's Minister of the Environment Jim Bradley have jointly sent a letter to Ministers Keith Ashfield and Peter Kent to put off the closure until they can figure out a way to keep it open.

"We recommend that the decision to close the Experimental Lakes Area be deferred and that you explore the possibility of a new operating regime," says the letter sent on June 5.

And the coalition that sprang up to try to save the ELA reports it has collected more than 11,500 names on a petition. Spokesman Diane Orihel says so far the federal reaction to the petition signed by Canadians from across the country has been "silence."


  • This story has been edited from an earlier version that incorrectly stated that 11,500 names had been collected on an online petition opposing the ELA closure. In fact, it is a paper petition.
    Jun 19, 2012 12:05 PM ET