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Great Lakes Restoration Logo.The Great Lakes ecosystem has been contaminated by careless industrial practices dating back to the early 1900s. Countless languishing chemical products and byproducts of modern life enter the air, water, land, and biota, and even into people’s bodies. People can be exposed to these persistent toxic substances through contaminated air, water, soil and eating locally caught fish and wildlife.

The International Joint Commission (IJC), enacted since the 1909 U.S. and Canadian Boundary Waters Treaty, helps manage the lake and river systems along the Great Lakes. The IJC identifies Areas of Concern (AOC) and currently 30 AOCs remain on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes Basin and span across eight states (Illinois, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin). All of these AOCs are impacted by chemical contaminants from either local sources and/or remote sources of pollution.

In 2009, President Obama’s Administration announced the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) – the largest investment in the Great Lakes in two decades. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (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, EPA is funding the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to implement the Biomonitoring of Great Lakes Populations program.

Goals of the ATSDR Biomonitoring of Great Lakes Populations Program

  • Assess exposure to priority International Joint Commission (IJC) legacy contaminants in subpopulations at higher risk of exposure throughout the Great Lakes Basin
  • Assess emerging contaminants of concern in targeted subpopulations throughout the Great Lakes Basin
  • Establish a central repository of program data that can be used to explore environmental public health issues in the Great Lakes Basin

Current Program, September 30, 2010 – September 29, 2015

The ATSDR announced a funding opportunity in the Federal Register, May 21, 2010. Participating programs are required to assess the following set of IJC legacy pollutants: PCB congeners (28, 52, 101, 105, 118, 138, 153, 180), mercury, lead, mirex, hexacholorbenzene (HCB), and DDT/DDE. In addition to these core analytes, applicants were encouraged to propose other contaminants of local concern. Emerging contaminants of concern such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), that are widely used in fire retardants, and perfluorinated compounds that are used to make materials stain or stick resistant are examples of contaminants that may also be of interest.

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 and the Saginaw River AOCs; Minnesota American Indians residing near the St. Louis River AOC; and 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.

Objectives for State Cooperative Agreement Programs

  • Determine which pollutants the selected vulnerable subpopulations are exposed to and the levels of those substances in comparison to background levels in the U.S. general population
  • Use biomonitoring data to guide public health actions to advance the protection of people in their jurisdiction who are at increased exposure risk to Great Lakes contaminants

Currently Funded Programs

1. Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH)

Project Description:
The Michigan project evaluates body burdens of priority contaminants in urban shoreline anglers along the Detroit River and Saginaw Bay AOCs who regularly eat their catch. Michigan’s surface water resources, including the Great Lakes, are contaminated with toxic and persistent chemicals including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, furans, pesticides, mercury and lead. There are nine environmentally degraded surface water systems (AOCs) in Michigan where restrictions have been placed on eating fish and wild game, and the State of Michigan has issued fish consumption advisories since 1970. Still, every year, Michigan residents catch and eat local fish, and feed them to their families unaware of the contaminants that may be present in their dinner. The MDCH will identify urban anglers who eat sport-caught fish from the contaminated waters and select a representative sample from this at-risk population. Participants’ blood and urine results will be 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 will provide insight into the fish eating habits and associated chemical body burdens of urban anglers in these areas. The MDCH will use this information to improve the Michigan Fish Advisory program and to develop fish advisory outreach materials designed specifically for these subpopulations.

2. Minnesota Department of Health 

Project Description:
The Minnesota project evaluates body burdens of priority contaminants in a population-based sample of adult American Indians who live in the vicinity of the St. Louis River Area of Concern (SLRAOC) in Carlton and southern St. Louis counties. Tribal members have been identified as a susceptible population due to life-ways that may increase exposure to these contaminants. Potential exposure pathways include consumption of fish and other traditional foods. Within the tribal population, certain subgroups are also more sensitive to the effects of contaminants due to life stage, such as the elderly, women of child-bearing age, and children. The SLRAOC includes the St. Louis River/Interlake/Duluth Tar and US Steel National Priorities List Site, two distinct areas near the mouth of the SLR where it empties into Lake Superior. Other industrial activities, including a large paper mill have also occurred along the SLR between Duluth and Cloquet, resulting in contamination of the river. Fish advisories for mercury and PCBs are in effect for the SLR from Cloquet to Lake Superior. The project purpose is to assess exposure of tribal members to the required IJC legacy contaminants as well as other selected environmental chemicals. This information will be used to develop public health interventions. Public health actions taken as a result of this project will aim to reduce body burdens of Great Lakes contaminants within these susceptible subpopulations.

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

Project Description:
The New York project will evaluate body burdens in two different populations: (1) licensed anglers who live in proximity to the AOCs in western New York who fish in the AOCs and eat their catch; and, (2) Burmese refugees and immigrants who live in the City of Buffalo and eat fish caught in the AOCs. The project will be conducted in four NYS AOCs: Buffalo River, Niagara River, and Eighteenmile Creek in western NYS (Erie and Niagara counties), and the Rochester Embayment on Lake Ontario (Monroe county). The NYS DOH will use the biomonitoring program information to develop next steps, which will include identifying, controlling, and preventing potential adverse exposures associated with Great Lakes pollutants.
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