The Great Lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario – and their connecting waters are the largest surface freshwater system in the world. One-tenth of the U.S. population lives in the Great Lakes basin. The Great Lakes ecosystem has been contaminated by human activities and industrial disposal practices dating back to the early 1900s.  While many of these toxic chemicals were banned and phased-out of commerce decades ago, they remain as “legacy pollutants” because they do not easily degrade in the environment and can bioaccumulate in fish and other wildlife.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) lists 27 environmentally degraded surface water systems called “Areas of Concern” (AOCs) [] that span across eight states (Illinois, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin). Urban communities living in or near AOCs and indigenous communities that live off the land in the Great Lakes basin are particularly at risk of potentially high exposure to contaminated air, water, and soil through eating locally caught fish and wildlife.

In 2009, Congress appropriated $475 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI)


– the largest investment in the Great Lakes in two decades. US EPA, in conjunction with 11 federal agencies, developed a GLRI action plan to protect, restore and maintain the Great lakes ecosystem. As part of the GLRI, US EPA is funding the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to implement the Biomonitoring of Great Lakes Populations program (BGLP).

Goals and Objectives of the ATSDR Biomonitoring of Great Lakes Populations Program (BGLP)

The purpose of the BGLP program is to assess exposure to priority legacy contaminants and emerging contaminants of concern in susceptible subpopulations throughout the Great Lakes Basin who are at high risk of exposure.

The program’s objectives are:

  • To assess body burdens of priority and emerging contaminants in the Great Lakes ecosystem, particularly among those who are at high exposure risk
  • To assess unique baseline exposure information in susceptible populations at the onset of GLRI restoration activities
  • To use biomonitoring data to inform health officials and help guide public health actions throughout the restoration process
  • To reduce exposure and protect the public who are at increased exposure risk to Great Lakes contaminants

Program Description

The BGLP program consists of a series of cross-sectional studies carried out collaboratively with state health departments that are funded as cooperative agreement programs. The BGLP program targets vulnerable populations, i.e., shoreline anglers, sport anglers, immigrants and tribal communities, who may eat more local fish, aquatic plants and wildlife – as an inexpensive source of food or as a cultural custom- than the general population. Several contaminants are measured in all participants, including mercury, lead, mirex, hexachlorobenzene, DDT/DDE, and polychlorinated biphenyls. In addition, some chemicals of emerging concern that are found in the Great Lakes, such as polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, bisphenol A, and toxaphene, are measured in several studies.

BGLP-I, September 30, 2010 – September 29, 2015

ATSDR funded three state cooperative agreement programs: Michigan, Minnesota, and New York. Overall, these state health department programs target seven AOCs and four types of susceptible adults: Michigan shoreline anglers on the Detroit River AOC, Minnesota American Indians residing near the St. Louis River AOC, New York licensed anglers living in Lake Ontario and Lake Erie AOCs, and Burmese refugees and immigrants living in the city of Buffalo. The New York AOCs include the Rochester Embayment AOC, the Eighteenmile Creek AOC, and the AOCs along the Niagara and Buffalo Rivers.

1. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS)

Project Description:

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) conducted a study of “shoreline anglers,” defined as urban Michigan residents who fish from the riverbank, or shore, and who are at high risk of exposure to persistent toxic contaminants due to their regular consumption of local-caught fish from the Detroit River.  Previous studies conducted by the MDHHS and the University of Michigan found that shoreline anglers in these areas eat fish species containing higher contaminant levels at a higher frequency than sport anglers fishing from boats in these same areas. In addition, the shoreline anglers tend to be low-income, have lower educations levels, and fish for sustenance as well as recreation. Participation was limited to adults 18 years of age and older who reported eating at least two meals per month of local-caught fish from the Detroit River. MDHHS identified urban shoreline anglers who ate fish caught from the Detroit River and selected a representative sample from this at-risk population. Participants’ blood and urine results were compared to estimated background levels of these chemicals in people living in the United States to determine the prevalence of elevated levels. Information gained from this investigation provided insight into the fish eating habits and associated chemical body burdens of urban anglers in this area. The MDCH is using this information to improve the Michigan Fish Advisory program and to develop fish advisory outreach materials designed specifically for this subpopulation.

2. Minnesota Department of Health (MDH)

Project Description:

In Minnesota, the Fond du Lac (FDL) Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation is located in the Great Lakes Basin near the St. Louis River Area of Concern (SLRAOC). Over decades, the SLRAOC has been impacted by industrial activities that resulted in chemical spills, contaminated sediments, abandoned hazardous waste sites, landfill and industrial discharges, and surface runoff. American Indians affiliated with FDL or other tribes, who live in proximity to the SLRAOC, may experience greater exposure to contaminants within the Lake Superior Basin and the SLRAOC as consumers of traditional foods from local aquatic environments, such as fish and waterfowl. The MDH and the FDL Band of Lake Superior Chippewa collaborated on this descriptive cross-sectional, population-based study. The study population was adult American Indians, including enrolled members of the FDL Band and their descendants, and enrolled members of other federally-recognized tribes and their descendants, who live in Carlton County and in the southern half of St. Louis County in Minnesota. Study findings were used by MDH and FDL to develop a public health action plan to prevent or reduce exposures to Great Lakes contaminants through targeted interventions. Findings will also have important applications for the development and evaluation of tribal and state policies and programs for control and reduction of environmental pollution and prevention of ongoing human exposures.

3. Health Research, Inc. / New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH)

Project Description:

The NYSDOH project focused on four AOCs located in western NYS: Buffalo River, Niagara River, Eighteenmile Creek, and Rochester Embayment. Fish sampling data collected by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) show that PCBs are the most ubiquitous pollutants in the NYS AOCs. In addition, DDT/DDE, lead, mercury, mirex, and dioxins are found at most of the AOCs. The Buffalo River AOC in the City of Buffalo (the largest city in upstate NY) is a 6-mile segment of this highly industrialized river. Several parks have recently been developed along its banks, providing access for boating and fishing. Much of the surrounding area is densely populated, and a large percentage of the population lives at or below the poverty level. The Niagara River AOC consists of the entire 35 miles of the Niagara River from the eastern end of Lake Erie northward to Lake Ontario. The river is a popular spot for anglers and has several recreational beaches in the City of Buffalo. The Eighteenmile Creek AOC is 18 miles east of the Niagara River and includes the entire watershed of the Eighteenmile Creek (the “source” AOC). The creek is very popular with anglers. The Rochester Embayment AOC is a bay on Lake Ontario that includes 6 miles of the Genesee River that flows through the urban center of the City of Rochester. The bay and river are used for fishing and swimming and is a source of drinking water. There are fish consumption advisories in all the NYS AOCs as a result of contamination from PCBs, mercury, mirex, and/or dioxins. The NYSDOH program targeted two susceptible populations: (1) licensed anglers who live in proximity to areas of contamination in western New York who eat locally caught fish (“licensed anglers”); and, (2) Burmese refugees and immigrants and their descendants who live in the City of Buffalo and eat fish caught in the area. The study populations were sampled, recruited, and enrolled independently. The NYSDOH is using the biomonitoring program information to develop steps which include identifying, controlling, and preventing potential adverse exposures associated with Great Lakes pollutants.

BGLP-II, September 30, 2013 – December 31, 2018

The purpose of this program is to evaluate body burden levels of priority contaminants in Great Lakes residents, particularly those who are at highest exposure risk, in an area that was not addressed in the original cooperative agreement program. The ATSDR BGLP-II awarded funds to the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH).

Health Research, Inc. / New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH)

Project Description:

Onondaga Lake is a 4.5 square mile highly polluted Great Lakes Basin water body located in the City Syracuse, the Towns of Salina, Geddes, and Camillus. As a result of past industry, Onondaga Lake waters are contaminated with mercury, and sediments are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides, creosotes, heavy metals (including lead, cobalt and mercury), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and volatile organic compounds such as chlorobenzene.  Fish caught from Onondaga Lake have the highest mercury levels in NYS. NYSDOH will look at adults living in Syracuse, NY who are known to eat fish from Onondaga Lake. The NYSDOH biomonitoring program’s two target subpopulations are: (1) the Burmese and Bhutanese refugee community in Syracuse who are known to eat a substantial amount of fish from Onondaga Lake; (2) an urban, subsistence population who rely on fish from Onondaga Lake as a source of food.

BGLP-III, Milwaukee Angler Project, September 30, 2015 – ongoing

Initiated in 2015, the ATSDR BGLP-III awarded funds to Wisconsin Department of Health Services (WIDHS).  The program is currently ongoing. The project is locally referred to as “The Milwaukee Angler Project.”

Wisconsin Department of Health Services (WIDHS)

Project Description:

In 2016, ATSDR announced a new funding opportunity CDC-RFA-TS16-1601, “Biomonitoring Legacy and Emerging Great Lakes Contaminants in Susceptible Great Lakes Populations” (hereafter referred to as Biomonitoring Great Lakes Populations III or BGLP-III). ATSDR awarded funds to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (WIDHS).  The purpose of the BGLP-III program is to evaluate body burden levels of legacy and emerging contaminants in in susceptible Great Lakes populations in the Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern (AOC) in Wisconsin, an area that has not been previously covered by BGLP-I and II.

In the state of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Estuary AOC is of particular concern because the Milwaukee River Basin is located in the most densely populated area of Wisconsin, encompassing portions of seven counties and home to about 1.3 million people. The Milwaukee Estuary was designated an AOC in 1987 because historical modifications and pollutant loads degraded sections of the Milwaukee River and connected waterways, as well as Lake Michigan. Ongoing work conducted by the United States Geological Survey shows the Milwaukee Estuary AOC ranks in the top ten out of the twenty-seven designated AOCs in the Great Lakes Basin for many of the contaminants of concern included in this program. Industrial, urban, and agricultural pollution have resulted in sediments contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heavy metals which pose a threat to the health of local residents, especially anglers who regularly eat fish caught in the AOC.

WIDHS will look at adults living in the Milwaukee area who eat fish from the Milwaukee area water bodies. The program has two proposed target subpopulations: 1) licensed anglers who live near the Milwaukee Estuary (target sample size: 400 people), and 2) Burmese refugees and their descendants who live in the City of Milwaukee (target sample size: 100 people). Particular effort will be made to include Burmese refugees living in the area, who are known to consume high quantities of fish and may have difficulties accessing culturally and linguistically appropriate fish consumption advisory information. Findings will serve to increase awareness of chemical exposures among local consumers of Great Lakes fish, as well as the entire Great Lakes community. Furthermore, location-specific data will help to inform local public health actions and safeguard people from harmful exposure.

Page last reviewed: March 12, 2018