Pollution and Contamination

dead fish

Although it is hard to pin point the exact moment in time when the Great Lakes began to become contaminated, what we do know is that the effects of this pollution will span across many generations, affecting millions of people. The affects of the pollution, however, touch more than just people. The plants and animals that live near the Great Lakes are victims of this pollution, as well.


The earliest forms of pollution were very different from the kinds of pollution that we think of today. The first documented pollution began around the early 1900's. While the residents of the area were trying to support themselves by cutting down the trees and creating saw mills, their waste was creating mass chaos in the delicate ecosystem that had been created. The removal of the trees meant that the areas of the water that were once protected by the shade of the trees, were now exposed to the sun. Algae began to grow at a rapid rate, changing the environment for the other plants and animals that lived in this area.

Once the trees were cut down, they were sent to local saw mills, and the extra branches and other unwanted peices were left on the floor of the forrest. Wind and rain washed this excess debris into the lakes and streams, causing small waterways to become clogged. The sawmill sthat processed the lumber from the forrests began to dump their sawdust into the lakes, streams, and rivers as well, causing even more clogging of the small waterways. The fish and other animals that lived in the area began ti ingest this debris, causing a drop in the animal populations.

As industrialization and urbanization began to occur, the quality of the water began to decrease even more rapidly. It was this pollution that began to cause major problems for the people that lived around the Great Lakes. Over the course of time, the water became contaminated with bacteria, floating debris, etc... We know that the water in the GreatLakes was being use as the main source of drinking water for the thousands of people that lived there. These same people also depended upon the lakes to provide them with a source of recreational pleasure.

As you can imagine, this pollution led to many serious problems. The bacteria that contaminated the water in the lakes and streams found a way to creep into the supply of drinking water. This bacterial contamination was responsible for causing an epidemic of Typhoid Fever to spread through the population. The Typhoid Fever epidemic was responsible for hundreds of human deaths. Despite the hundreds of deaths, no action was taken to prevent future pollution or to begin a reversal of the present pollution.

Time passed and the pollution only worsened. In 1920 PCB's were used heavily and in 1940 DDT came into existance. These substances, along with non-organic fertilizers, untreated human wastes, and instrial waste products began to creep into the water supply. This caused the pollution to spread into the soil that was watered through irragation, it affected the animals that drank the water in the lakes, streams and rivers, and plants that had depended on the clean, fresh water began to slowly die.

In the late 1950's Lake Erie was identified as the first lake suffering from lake wide pollution. At this point in time no real action was taken. It was not until about 1965 that public concerncaused action to be taken. Due to the public outcry, the government responded by allocating more money for pollution research and enacting laws to regulate the amount of toxic dumping that could occur. Along with allocating money to research, the government also helped to build sewage treatment plants throughout the area.

The year 1970 brought many changes, as well. Industrial plants that had once dumped their waste products into the lakes and surrounding water supplies faced much stricter regulations. Common citizens who once used the water and surrounding land as their dumping ground faced strict punishments if they were caught. And farmers, comercila and private, could not use certain pesticides and fertilizers.

The passage of time showed that the efforts to clean up the pollution could be successful. Before long, the water supply was again safe for human consumption, beaches were re-opened for swimmers, and fishers could once again fish in Lake Erie. More importnatly, however, was the public's new knowledge of just how dangerous pollution could be.

Presently, the Great Lakes are still suffering from the effects of pollution. While the levels of pollution are nowhere near as high as they were in 1950, the number of lakes and streams that are considered "polluted" is far greater. If you look at the map above, you will see that the pollution has not been eliminated. You will also see a small sample of the the things that are actually affected by the pollution. Everything from gull eggs to the actual fish living in the lakes.

Unfortunately, the scenario is far worse. In 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published an alarming report. According to their data, the Great Lakes region is the home to 39 endangered species of animals, as well as 25 endangered plant species. A key cause of the decline in the numbers of theses species is the contamination of the land and water within the region. This is just one example of how the pollution is really affecting the animals that live in this area. In order for us to prevent these animals from becoming extinct, we need to start cleaning up the pollution and prevent future pollution.
If you look at the statistics provided by the national EPA, you will see that in 1997, that of all of the lakes, streams, and rivers in the Great Lakes region, 41% were rated as having "good" water quality, 55% were rated as having "fair" water quality, and 4% were rated as having "poor" water quality. We have come a far way since the 1950's, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Among the sources of pollution that were named in this report, the four most commonly mentioned sourcs of pollution were: point source pollution, urban runoff, nutrient disbalances, and agricultural drainage. All of these sources of pollution are controlable. We are able to reverse the the pollution that we have already caused. It will, however, take some time and a lot of hard work. To learn more about wahat you can do, go to What You Can Do

For information regarding the pollution of specific watersheds in the Great Lakes region you can go to: The Illonois Environmental Association's web page -or- The National Environmental Association's web page -or- The Grand Traverse Bay web page

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