Lakes Are Loaded With Chemicals, Even Cocaine
A nor'easter off of Lake Superior pounds Minnesota's North Shore near Tettegouche State Park.
Intro Recently, Typhoon Vincent knocked cartons into the sea off the coast of Hong Kong. The cartons were filled with bags of small plastic pellets that are now spread far and wide across Hong Kong's beaches. The pellets themselves are non-toxic, but they are prone to absorbing toxins from the surrounding environment. If they are eaten by fish after they've absorbed toxins, the fish's flesh will become toxic as well. Once this happens it's a short jump to us consuming the now-toxic fish. Complex interactions like this are common in nature, but often overlooked by the media. Fish eating our discarded or spilled trash largely goes unnoticed, but it can have dire effects on many populations of humans and animals. We need to pay attention to all the ways and places where this trash leaves our hands and enters the ecosystem.
Gatahan, Malaysia The beaches of Gatahan in Malaysia would be a far more beautiful sight without the plastics. One good storm and these will wash out and join their bretheren in the Pacific Garbage Patch. Bottles like these were made from the plastic pellets currently sitting on the beaches of Hong Kong.
London Olympics Now, at the 2012 London Olympic Games, the beaches of England are crowded with spectators. Their trash, if not properly disposed of, could easily end up in the English Channel or be washed out to sea.
English Beaches Outside of the Olympics, other English beaches are experiencing events. Here, the Relentless Boardmasters pro-surfing competition is only part of a five-day surf-skate and music festival. Any rubbish left behind could easily spread to the surrounding waterways.
VIDEO: What's an Ocean Garbage Patch?
California It's not as easy as "don't be a litterbug." Here in California, a popular surfing destination, trash has piled up on a beach due to storms and swollen seas. The ocean swells will pull any trash left on the beach, but as mudslides often pull trash from other parts of the coastline, it's not just the beaches that can affect the oceans.
HOWSTUFFWORKS: The Pacific Garbage Patch Explained
"Turtle Sanctuary" Our Editor-in-Chief snapped this photo in Aruba. She writes on her blog,"At the top of the steps leading down to this 'sanctuary' was a poster talking about the importance of beaches like these in the Arikok National Park to breeding sea turtles." "When I went down to the beach, I found a headless doll, plastic bottles, flip-flops, a sneaker -- it was a joke how much garbage was there."
NEWS: Pacific Plastic Soup 100-fold Increase
Goa, India It's not just the West where trash can collect on the beaches. Here a beach in Goa, India, garbage and litter from plastic and glass lie entangled in vegetation. If washed into the ocean, the glass will eventually break down and return to sand, but the plastic will live for hundreds of thousands of years, likely finding its way to the "Great Pacific Patch."
ANALYSIS: Recycled Island to Be Built from Ocean Garbage Patch
Isle of Skye Trash dropped from one beach can find its way to other, more visible places than the Pacific Garbage Patch. Here, a beach on the Isle of Skye in Scotland is covered in trash that washed ashore.
ANALYSIS: Antarctic Garbage Patch Coming?
Hidden Trash Even if we attempt to dispose of our trash "properly" we can still affect the world's oceans. Plastic bags concealed in an old landfill are revealed as the edge is eroded away. This island in the United Kingdom will eventually begin to lose its long-hidden trash into the sea. Then, as sea levels rise around the world and weather becomes stormier, many areas with landfills near the water will do the same as they experience greater rates of coastal erosion.
ANALYSIS: Garbage Drone Could Clean Up Oceans
Passing on the Trash This small island in the Philippines is an attractive island, but it doesn't keep it from accumulating trash. If the residents of Hong Kong fail to clean the pellets from their beaches, the Olympic crowds toss their trash in the wrong place, or a storm washes plastic into the seas off California, eventually it will end up tainting these pristine beaches. If we're not careful, instead of digging for coins and enjoying a days catch on a beach vacation, we'll be digging for old water bottles and eating a fish that consumed those pellets.
From urban and developed to remote and isolated, lakes around Minnesota contain a wide range of chemicals, including DEET, BPA, prescription drugs and even cocaine.
The findings, which came out of the first large-scale, systematic statewide study, suggest that it might be worth taking a wider look at bodies of water around the country for chemicals that have potential consequences for both the environment and human health.
For now, it’s not clear how all of the chemicals are getting into Minnesota’s lakes or exactly what effects they might be having on animals or people.
“It’s not as though people should worry about going to the lake or taking their dogs to the lakes,” said Mark Ferrey, an environmental scientist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which published the new report. “We’re talking about how we’re affecting lakes and rivers in ways that we probably don’t understand yet.”
“It’s disquieting,” he added. “We could be affecting fish populations or entire ecosystems in ways that are largely invisible to us.”
Starting about a decade ago, in routine reconnaissance, Ferrey and colleagues began collecting surface waters from rivers and streams around Minnesota. As expected, analyses showed contaminants downstream from wastewater treatment plants and in other highly developed areas. But the researchers were surprised when chemicals also turned up in background samples collected in lakes with mostly untouched shorelines.
For the new study, which was part of a larger national project, sampling crews collected water from 50 Minnesota lakes, which were randomly chosen by a computer program that picked geographic coordinates. Samples were then analyzed in a Vancouver lab for suite of 125 chemicals.
Forty-seven out of 50 lakes contained at least one chemical on the list, the researchers reported. The bug-repellent DEET was the most widespread, turning up in 76 percent of the lakes sampled. BPA, a plasticizer that has been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, showed up in 43 percent of the lakes.
About a third of the lakes contained cocaine. A similar proportion contained the antidepressant amitriptyline. And the same number contained carbodox, an antibiotic used in pigs, which showed up even in lakes that were not surrounded by agricultural land. Triclosan, a chemical used in antimicrobial soaps, appeared in 14 percent of the lakes.
It’s still a mystery how all of those chemicals are getting into lakes in the first place, but Ferrey suspects that some may be riding on specks of dust in the air. One study in Italy found that cocaine attaches to particles that are about 2.5 microns in size, and more cocaine floats through the air in places where cocaine use is more prevalent.
Concentrations of chemicals were very low, measurable as parts per trillion. But some research suggests that hormone-disrupting chemicals can have effects even at those low levels, Ferrey said. In one study in an experimental lake, dosing the water with an estrogenic contraceptive at five parts per trillion caused populations of fathead minnows and trout to plummet. When researchers stopped adding the chemical to the water, the fish rebounded.
“Even at very low doses,” Ferrey said, “things that are hormones or hormone-like don’t have to be toxic or poisonous to exert strong effects.”
The new findings add important detail to previous work that had documented the presence of a smaller number of compounds in lakes around the country, said research hydrologist Dana Kolpin, head of the emerging contaminants and environment project at the U.S. Geological Survey in Iowa City.
For now, the new study remains a one-time snapshot of what’s out there, he said. Future work will determine if levels change throughout the seasons and whether the findings are cause for concern.
“I want to be middle of the road,” Kolpin said. “I don’t want to say the sky is falling. But these certainly are compounds that wouldn’t be occurring naturally. That means this warrants more research to see if there is something we need to be concerned about.”