Ask any Canadian and they will tell you that the country is blessed with a bounty of water resources – more than any other nation on the planet. However, recent disturbing events such as the toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie and Lake Winnipeg and a mine tailings pond spill in British Columbia have warned us that if we aren’t more careful, it can be a curse too.
Turns out that many of the problems increasingly worrisome today are the same ones we knew about a generation ago. We thought that science would have solved them by now – but in some cases it has just gotten worse.
Andrew Fazekas is a science and weather expert for Yahoo Canada News.
One of the major battlefronts involves man-made chemicals like phosphate-based fertilizers being flushed into our lakes and rivers through our municipal sewer systems. Excess use of these agricultural fertilizers in corn fields and manure-saturated feedlots leach nutrients out in general runoffs, contaminating large areas. And it's these phosphates that can cause toxic algae blooms that can kill off entire aquatic ecosystems.
“it’s not just one point source for this type of pollution, it’s every farm that contributes and it’s the cumulative effect which is really the problem,” says Hanspeter Shreier, senior water pollution scientist at University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
“The big issue that I have is that when we really look at the environment, we’re talking about cumulative effects and we have to deal with how these things interact.”
The problem is tied directly to the intense growth of our cities, Shreier says. Urban populations have exploded in the last 20 years, and even if we are treating wastewater at really high standards, we are still bound to release small amounts of toxic chemicals.
“Multiply this by extra two million people, and you’ve got issues,” he added.
Within this ever-expanding urban sprawl lies another source of water pollution that Shreier believes has the potential to cause serious problems in the near future – stormwater disposal.
When there is a lull in rains that last many days or even weeks, roads and parking lots accumulate oil, grease, hydrocarbons and metals. When a heavy storm rumbles through a city, extreme concentrations of those contaminants are flushed into our streams within the first 15 minutes of the rain's start.
“So we’re shocking the system over a very short period of time,” Shreier says. “That’s probably much more detrimental to the environment than having a gradual increase in pollution."
But Shreier is actively working on solutions which have already shown success in Vancouver.
His university team of engineers and scientists are building six sand-based filter systems that have gone into the middle of the city, and not only store the stormwater but also can absorb some of the contaminants, dramatically reducing impacts on the local streams.
But in many cases when it comes to water pollution, scientists only have educated guesses as to what is really going on. This is the case when it comes to chemicals, including pharmaceuticals and personal care products that we use in our everyday lives and are being flushed down the drain.
"One of the most important are our drugs – particularly hormones, because they were designed to be incredibly powerful chemicals,” explains Douglas Holdway, a senior aquatic toxicologist with the Canadian Rivers Institute.
“You can have 100 billion cells affected by a single molecule of estrogen, for example,” he says.
“These potent drugs within birth control pills actually pass through us and are urinated out, practically all unmetabolized – meaning they may still have quite a potent effect when they exit the body and enter the natural environment,”he said.
Unfortunately, the sewage treatment plants were never designed to take out these chemicals, Holdway points out, so eventually they are ending up in our lakes and rivers, impacting our wildlife.
“Our river-based ecosystems are so complex, there are literally hundred of thousands of species out there, and we know next to nothing about how this would effect all these organisms,” he says.
A seminal seven-year long University of New Brunswick research study published in 2008 showed that even minuscule amounts of estrogen flushed into the rivers can wreak havoc with wild fish populations living downstream.
The residue from these pills have led to some sex oddities, actually disrupting fish endocrine systems to the point of bending their genders. Male fish exposed to the sex hormone have become feminized, producing egg protein normally produced by females.
Even seemingly harmless chemicals appear to be contaminating our natural water supply, but their effects as of yet are not fully known.
Holdway and his research team are now looking at the the active ingredient in common odour-removers and laundry soaps.
Known as cyclodextrin, it is a sugar that is actually used to send drugs into our body that we wouldn’t normally get across cell membranes, but can also mask odours.
“It’s used in lots of things, it’s that liquid you spray around, people are inhaling it because you have it in air deodorizers in cars and in their houses, and releasing it in little puffs as you walk by. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” Holdway says.
“We believe it’s not toxic to humans but we’re not the only organism on this planet, and that’s the problem.”
But it has a number of purposes, and it’s being flushed in huge amounts down our drains. Many researchers, including Holdway, believe it’s going to be showing up in sewage treatment plants.
Right now we have a few hotspots, generally it’s not too bad. But if we continue to do what we’re doing, we will pay the price later.
— Hanspeter Shreier, senior water pollution scientist at UBC
“We were kind of curious, and it turns out they bind fat-soluble hormones – like estrogen,” he says. “That means that when the body needs them they might not be available.”
Holdway started to do experiments that look at cyclodextrin's effects on fish, and sure enough, even with very low concentrations over a lifespan, it affected them and even the next generation.
Early results are showing that it reduces fish’s ability to sustain toxin exposure by about a factor of 3 to 4.
Both Holdway and Shrierer worry that as a nation, we are being more reactive rather than proactive when dealing with issues of water pollution.
A case in point: The accidental spill of the mine tailings pond in northern British Columbia. It now is a hotspot for potential long-term metal contamination of the surrounding aquatic ecosystem. Common in these types of mines, copper sulphide can oxidize and form sulphuric acid over time. This is what Shrieier says can cause serious problems with metal pollution in the years ahead in the form of acid mine drainage.
Also worrisome are the fracking operations in remote regions that use lots of water with chemicals to help in lubrication of the bedrock when extracting fossil fuels. Shipping these nasty chemicals to remote sites along dirt roads with little oversight, as is the current practice, might not be the safest option.
“My fear is that we are going to have a few more spills coming in the future,” Shrieier warns.
“Right now we have a few hotspots, generally it’s not too bad. But if we continue to do what we’re doing, we will pay the price later.”
(Photo courtesy The Canadian Press)