Beach Read: Cyanotoxins in the Great Lakes

By Jennifer Boehme, IJC

“Cyanotoxins: Stay Away from Green Water” arrives just in time for the start of the Great Lakes beach season. The infographic offers key points and findings from a recent report by IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board. May 22-28 also is Healthy and Safe Swimming Week, a project of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

cyanotoxins infographic hpab
Click the image above for the full infographic

The IJC board report, “Science and Monitoring Assessment for Human Health Effects of Cyanobacterial Toxins in the Great Lakes Region,” describes health impacts that can stem from exposure to cyanotoxins, which may occur while swimming in areas affected by cyanobacteria blooms.

Blooms of cyanobacteria occur in warm waters with abundant nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen. Harmful algal blooms, or HABs, produce toxins that can cause health problems for humans, pets, fish, and wildlife. Different toxins that affect the liver, nervous system, and skin have been identified.

runoff algal bloom lake erie
Agricultural runoff and a harmful algal bloom on the Western Lake Erie shoreline, 12 miles east of Toledo. Credit: NASA

Blooms have been regularly found in the Great Lakes, inland lakes, and other places. HABs are occurring more often due to rising water temperatures, and heavy use of fertilizer on lands draining into streams and lakes. New species of cyanobacteria also are being found in the Great Lakes.

While the report’s findings focus primarily on strategies for improving drinking water, cyanobacteria blooms also invade beach areas with cyanotoxins and can make boating unpleasant. The public should be aware of potential health risks from HABs, and that swimming is discouraged where HABs are present. Better monitoring and reporting of toxin levels in the Great Lakes could improve the precision of public warnings and public health protection.

While such monitoring is not common practice, beach closures in the Great Lakes can impact your summer plans. Regular checks for beach closures in your area are a good way to stay informed on beach water quality, as postings can change over the swimming season.

Information is available online at BeachCast, a product of the Great Lakes Commission. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper also has a Swim Guide app that includes water quality information for beaches in Canada.

An infographic summarizing “Science and Monitoring Assessment for Human Health Effects of Cyanobacterial Toxins in the Great Lakes Region.” Credit: Health Professionals Advisory Board

Jennifer Boehme is a physical scientist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Attention Increasing on Chemicals of Mutual Concern

By Jennifer Boehme, IJC

Chemical pollution of Great Lakes waters was subject of great interest at IJC’s recent public meetings, especially discussion in Sarnia, Ontario, of actions by Canada and the United States on Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs).

Chemical contaminants in the Great Lakes basin have historically posed risks to human health and wildlife over many years. The latest 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States seeks to address these risks and “… restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes.”

Both countries committed to action on Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs) under Annex 3 in the 2012 Agreement. Under Annex 3, Canada and the United States identify CMCs from human sources, which both nations agree are potentially harmful to human health or the environment. Once identified, the countries work to reduce both humans’ releases of CMCs through personal, government or business activities, and the use of products containing CMCs.

industrial pollution cmcs
Industrial pollution. Credit: Kenn Kiser

Both governments engaged with partner groups and university, government and industry experts to consider the question of harm to health or environment for a list of CMC prospects. The effects of human and animal exposure to CMCs depend upon the toxicity of the chemical and amount of exposure. Chemicals also can be passed up the food chains and food webs of aquatic systems, leading to higher levels of contamination in predator species.

csos discharge point
Combined sewer overflows can release bacteria to waterways and result in beach closures. Credit: Michael Pereckas

Governments’ nomination and scientific review of CMCs proceeded in 2015, and their success with these actions resulted in the identification and designation of eight CMCs in May 2016:

  • Mercury
  • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
  • Long-chain perfluorinated carboxylic acids (LC-PFCAs)
  • Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
  • Short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs).

Effects in humans include neurologic (mercury), skin rashes (HBCDs) and cancer (PCBs).

Management action to control CMC’s environmental release and use are expected as a next step in the process. Binational strategies for each CMC guide these actions, and development of strategies for PCBs and HCBDs is underway.

The next round of technical review for new CMCs will begin soon, and candidate CMC nominations are welcome at any time. Nominations to date include radionuclides — types of atoms that are radioactive and may give off radiation to the environment as they decay. While some radionuclides occur naturally, other sources include human activities such as weapons testing and waste from nuclear power plants. Exposure to radiation can result in increased cancer in humans. Signers of the nomination for radionuclides cite the health risks and lack of current binational Great Lakes monitoring strategies.

The IJC’s draft Triennial Assessment of Progress noted the success of the governments in completing the first round of CMC identification, where developing processes for CMC nomination and review is a positive first step. The draft assessment indicated that governments also could rely on lessons learned from the first round of CMC nominations to improve actions toward GLWQA objectives. For instance, governments’ development of binational strategies to control CMCs are well behind schedule, and the sheer number of potential CMCs argues for streamlining of the CMCs process. Finally, progress in reducing levels of legacy chemicals is encouraging but emerging contaminants are of concern.

Jennifer Boehme is a physical scientist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Viruses Can Travel the Great Lakes by Ship

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

ballast water ships viruses great lakes connection
Recent studies suggest that viral communities are able to travel far from home by hitching a lift in ballast water aboard ships. Credit: Yiseul Kim

Ships moving within the Great Lakes could be carrying viral passengers inside ballast tanks from one port to another.

These viruses are seemingly entering the Great Lakes from a variety of potential pathways: they may be spread by waterfowl, infected fish migrating from the Atlantic coast, bait transport or aquaculture. They also could be hitchhiking along in ballast water tanks that ships use to maintain balance, according to a 2015 study published in the American Chemical Society journal. What’s more, a followup study published since then suggests some viruses can make it to marine ports around the globe.

State and provincial governments around the Great Lakes have issued an advisory for an invasive virus called viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) in fish in the Great Lakes, first detected in Lake Ontario in 2005. The disease has led to major fish die-offs in all Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair and the St. Lawrence River. Although researchers aren’t sure how VHS entered the Great Lakes, it has proven to be a challenge to fisheries management.

Ballast water is used to fill these ballast tanks when a ship has less cargo to keep a ship stable. As more cargo is loaded onto the ship, ballast water is discharged to balance out the weight. Aquatic and marine life can get sucked up in that ballast water and discharged in completely different parts of the world, which accounts for the bulk of the invasive species in the Great Lakes. Canada and the United States have taken steps to prevent new invasive species from getting a lift from ballast water, by instituting one of the most stringent ballast water management regimes in the world, halting new aquatic invasive species from entering the basin from ballast water since 2006. This largely constitutes exchanging freshwater for seawater.

The 2015 study sampled ballast water from ships in a variety of locations on the lakes, including harbors like Toledo on Lake Erie, Essexville on Lake Huron, Burns Harbor on Lake Superior, and Hamilton on Lake Ontario. The ships were heading to Duluth on Lake Superior, one of the busiest harbors on the Great Lakes, and the ballast water was compared against the waters there as well, according to researcher Dr.  Yiseul Kim, a recent graduate from the Michigan State University Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics studying under Dr. Joan Rose (a member of the IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board).

msu kim aw duluth great lakes connection
Michigan State University researchers Yiseul Kim and Tiong Gim Aw add water samples from Duluth to plastic containers for study. Credit: Yiseul Kim

The ballast waters contained virus communities, Kim said, corresponding to the harbors from where the ships had picked up their ballast water. By comparing the virus’ genetic sequences against those in a database for Duluth’s harbor, she was able to determine whether they were local to the area or unwanted passengers. These viral communities targeted life in a variety of scientific kingdoms, including algae, plants, invertebrates (like insects), and vertebrates (like fish).  More than half of these sampled viral communities target bacteria, the study said.

“Viruses influence microbial communities because they require a host to replicate,” according to Rose.  “When you consider the ecological, economic and public health problems associated with taking up and discharging ballast water, we’re talking about potentially a large impact if waterborne viruses and diseases are spread over these long distances.”

The study didn’t investigate viruses coming into the Great Lakes from other parts of the world, but Kim said a study she worked on that was published in 2016 looked at virus communities in ballast water traveling around the world to marine ports. She had similar findings in that study, with seemingly nonnative viruses riding along to different parts of the globe. Limiting the spread of these viruses by shipping would require ballast water treatment technology that Kim said is still in the research phase, as well as more information about virus types and their impact. Ballast water treatment systems are going to be required for ships entering the Great Lakes in the coming years, however, as regulations include new discharge limits for microbes for human health concerns.

A virus not native to a particular region does not necessarily mean it’s invasive. An invasive species is a nonnative species that is having a detrimental impact on its new environment and disrupts the ecosystem.

“I found that ballast water contains viruses,” Kim said. “It can potentially bring viruses (to new areas) but to confirm if they are invasive species I need to investigate the impact of the viruses on the new water system.”

ballast tank ship kim
A researcher heads down into the ballast tank of a ship to collect water samples for the study. Credit: Yiseul Kim

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Science and Monitoring the Human Health Effects of Cyanobacterial Toxins

By Jennifer Boehme, IJC

Huge algal bloom fossils appear in rocks that are 3 billion years old. These organisms survived when other life couldn’t, and helped to form our atmosphere.  Today, similar blooms are visible from outer space. Cyanobacterial blooms continue to form around the world where waters have abundant or excess nutrients, like nitrogen or phosphorus.

In the Great Lakes, these blooms often float on surface water as a mat of blue-green scum.  Some blooms of cyanobacteria may produce toxic compounds (cyanotoxins), which can harm animal and human health. As a result, cyanobacteria blooms and cyanotoxins threaten Great Lakes recreational waters and drinking water supplies. These bacteria deserve our respect, and the stakes are huge: the Great Lakes provide drinking water for 35 million people and millions rely on it for recreation.

algal blooms erie pelee
Algal blooms impacting Pelee Island in western Lake Erie during the summer of 2015. Credit: NASA

To better understand the human health and management challenges for cyanobacteria and toxins common to the region, IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board undertook a science and monitoring assessment of the Great Lakes basin. Reviews of current literature indicate that blooms appear to be getting more frequent and long lasting than in the past, with new cyanobacteria appearing in the Great Lakes that have not been discovered here before. The report cites evidence which suggests we could reduce the risk of cyanobacterial blooms by controlling fertilizing pollutants and slowing the temperature rise in the lakes.

The review also highlights health surveillance gaps, and potential actions toward protecting public health. For instance, the ability of health care providers to associate environmental cyanotoxin exposure with individual cases and illness diagnoses remains a public health challenge. There also are questions as to how well existing public health guidelines for cyanotoxin exposure protect children, and the report makes a case for additional numeric criteria for more toxins.

The report notes that public health risk of cyanotoxin exposure can be reduced with improvements in drinking water monitoring and laboratory testing, though it is difficult to monitor beaches and drinking water to determine cyanotoxin presence. Challenges include the blooms, which can contain many cyanobacterial strains and multiple forms of toxins, complicating the search for simple testing strategies. Other challenges relate to current water treatment strategies, which may remove some toxins while making others worse. As a result, effectively managing cyanotoxin drinking water treatment remains a critical issue for Canada and the United States.

The threat to drinking water isn’t just theoretical: a 2014 bloom shut down the water system of Toledo, Ohio, a major US city. Canada has undertaken large investments in water infrastructure and monitoring, and the US is considering action toward a huge investment in infrastructure.

If the region is to improve water infrastructure the right way, binational efforts are needed. The HPAB report recommends identifying sound cyanotoxin treatment strategies, with technologies to remove mixtures rather than just individual toxins, and shifting treatments if a new toxin appears. These would be improvements over current water treatment practices.

Jennifer Boehme is a physical scientist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario, and secretary of the Health Professionals Advisory Board.

Great Lakes Waterworks at the University of Toronto

By Bonnie McElhinny, University of Toronto

Building a watershed movement for restoration and healing of the Great Lakes comes with several challenges, as noted by authors Peter Lavinge and Stephen Gates. These include increasing public understanding of rivers and lakes, enhancing ecological literacy, recruiting and empowering leaders, building citizenship organizations, and linking water activists. The draft Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement also notes increasing need for public engagement, especially from indigenous nations and other under-represented groups.

student indigenous perspectives
Students learn about indigenous perspectives on the Humber River as part of the Great Lakes Waterworks program at the University of Toronto. Credit: Bonnie McElhinny

At the University of Toronto, an initiative called Great Lakes Waterworks will serve as a hub for social scientists and humanities scholars and social justice activists to think collectively about community building and public engagement. Supported by an ATLAS (Advanced Teaching and Learning in Arts and Science) grant from the University of Toronto, the initiative has three key goals:

  • to establish an identifiable cluster of courses linked to water-based issues in and on the Great Lakes, including more experiential approaches to education
  • to train undergraduate students in the social sciences and humanities to do hands-on research generated by emerging needs linked to ongoing environmental initiatives in their community
  • to forge teaching and research networks with organizations in Toronto working actively on environmental and social justice initiatives.

Great Lakes Waterworks also dovetails with 2016 recommendations from a Canadian federal Truth and Reconciliation report for transforming relationships with indigenous nations. The University of Toronto’s version of the report, released in January, notes the need for indigenous approaches to spaces on campus, with a particular call for attention to a buried water body on campus (Taddle Creek), and deepening commitments to land-based education.

This year’s courses in Anthropology and Women and Gender Studies, taught at University of Toronto-St. George by Bonnie McElhinny and at the University of Toronto-Mississauga by Andrea Muehlebach, included “Living on the Water’s Edge in Toronto,” “Water and Social Justice,” and “Anthropologies of Water: On Values, Meanings and Futures.”

The courses introduced students to a range of ways to represent debates about water, such as photography, fiction and ethnography, to debates about water extraction, pipelines and approaches to city infrastructure. All were inflected by indigenous understandings of water and land. Instructors blurred classroom boundaries by inviting local activists from such organizations as Wellington Water Watchers to discuss ongoing work.

wellington water watchers toronto
The Wellington Water Watchers explain their work to University of Toronto students. Credit: Olivia Adamczyk

Students also had the opportunity to participate in a Digital Campfire called “Water Pedagogies:  Confluence in the Great Lakes,” which allowed 12 educators working with undergraduate students, elementary school students and general audiences to discuss ongoing work, how they engaged students, problems, questions and resources that are unaddressed or unavailable, and opportunities and needs for connecting educators and students around the Great Lakes. The audio file and a summary of presenters’ key points can be found at

Initiatives planned for the next year include:

  • a Great Lakes Circle convened with the support of Great Lakes Commons and the University of Toronto for 60-80 academics, activists, artists and others
  • a canoe build by an Anishinaabe activist with indigenous teachings
  • podcasts by students on water issues for a campus radio station
  • joint projects and courses for social science and planning students with Sheila Boudreau, a landscape architect with the City of Toronto who works on green infrastructure
  • joint initiatives with New College, integrating water-curriculum into ongoing initiatives on land and food security in residential, curricular and extra-curricular activities
  • A research partnership to support land and water protection and indigenous governance with Nancy Rowe, Mississaugas of the New Credit, and Kevin Best, Rivercourt Engineering/Indigenize or Die.

Bonnie McElhinny is an associate professor at the University of Toronto, and can be contacted at for further information.  A website and Facebook page will be launched for the Great Lakes Waterworks project in late summer 2017.

Watermarks in Words

By Jeff Kart

Video is one way to share your Great Lakes story. Words are another.

The IJC and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper are working together to capture memories about the five lakes as part of a Watermark Project. Some people have recorded videos at public events about personal, emotional and cultural connections to the lakes. Others are putting those thoughts into words on paper, or in this case, computer screens.

More than 70 Great Lakes Watermarks have been collected so far, most recently at March public meetings on progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

What’s your Great Lakes story? You can tell your tale here.

A sampling of written Watermarks is included below. They include the good and bad, from dirty water and debris to romance and recovery.


lake huron beach child
On Lake Huron. Credit: Tom Page

“Though I live in Buffalo, NY and have ancestry here and in southern Ontario, I grew up in Boston, MA and never liked the Great Lakes,” says Elizabeth Oldfield, near Lake Huron in Ontario.

“They were smelly, we weren’t allowed to swim in them when we visited, I didn’t bond with the lakes when we moved here to Buffalo in 2010. When I first swam in Lake Huron in Saugeen Shores, Ontario at Southhampton and Port Elgin, in the summer of 2012, I fell in love with the Great Lakes.” 

lake erie fog
On Lake Erie. Credit: Michael Scialdone

Judith Russo, near Lake Erie in New York, wrote: “Lake Erie is important to me because it gives us life and it feeds our soul.

“About ten years ago we started picking up plastic trash off the shore. I would bring 1 or 2 5-Gallon buckets, some days I would fill them both up with plastic trash that washes up on the shore.

“So I try to contribute to help make this planet more green. I moved to the area about ten years ago so we assume the trash was there before, but it’s become more of a problem recently.

“I’ve always been a water child and been close to the water, especially in the summer when I can go swimming as often as I like, and in between swims I collect plastic.”

Jo Johnson, also on Lake Erie in New York, shared a love story.

“Lake Erie was where me and my now husband had our first date, we went there really late at night and it smelt horrible, there was dead fish everywhere. We were in between the Windmills and Woodlawn beach. We were overwhelmed by the smell and it was only our second date ever, but we still had the time of our lives. There was a huge pile of wood debris from the water that washes up on shore and our dog was playing with the wood when all of a sudden a huge storm came. It was magical and we had our first kiss and that’s my fond memory of Lake Erie.”

frogs ontario lily pads
Frogs in Ontario. Credit: Emily

John Bacher says 12 Mile Creek in Niagara Falls, Ontario, is getting better.

“12 Mile Creek is the mouth of the Niagara River and feeds into Lake Ontario … It’s important because it provides habitat for the frogs and breeding amphibians like salamanders. It was shocking because I visited different urbanised areas of Niagara Falls and in the spring time which is breeding season, I couldn’t hear a single frog call.

“But now through awareness and eleven years of hard fought battling you can now go to those same spots and hear frog calls to the point where it drives people crazy. But it shows that with enough initiative you can drastically help to save habitats and ecosystems in your own backyard.”

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s Great Lakes Connection and Water Matters newsletters.

Educating the Freshwater Scientists of the Future

By Sumeep Bath, IISD Experimental Lakes Area

We often refer to the world’s only whole-lake experimentation site as a living laboratory, where researchers manipulate real-life ecosystems to research the effects of pollutants on freshwater.

You also could call the IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) an open-air classroom. With year-round experimentation, breathtaking vistas, educational and recreational activities and a fully equipped camp, it’s the perfect venue for a unique scientific educational experience.

Since 2014, when the International Institute for Sustainable Development took over operation of the IISD-ELA, we have been working on opening our doors. One major facet of that is developing learning experiences and field courses for students and budding scientists.

We want to make sure that today’s students are as excited and informed about freshwater issues as we are, and that the skills, expertise and experience particular to IISD-ELA are transferred to subsequent generations. Threats to our freshwater supplies aren’t going away, especially with the more-pronounced effects of climate change, so we need to continue this vital work.

students paddle experimental lakes area
Students paddle onto one of the IISD-ELA lakes. Credit: IISD-ELA

First up, we reach out to universities. So much of what we do at IISD-ELA comes from partnerships with universities and professors. Students from Lakehead University, the University of Manitoba, Trent University and more who are already studying a related topic have come to hone field research techniques in topics such as limnology, biogeochemistry, fisheries and aquatic sampling. While they are here, they can work side-by-side with world-class researchers to gain invaluable experience.

student paterson experimental lakes area
A student works in the IISD-ELA laboratory with IISD-ELA senior scientist Dr. Michael Paterson. Credit: IISD-ELA

What ELSE, you might ask? Well, the Experimental Lakes Students Expertise (ELSE for short) is now ready to be rolled out at many more schools after having been piloted with St. John’s-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg. This two-week field experience for high school students gives youth a unique perspective into ecological literacy, freshwater research and systems thinking. The students work with their peers, adult leaders and participating scientists throughout the day, observing, helping, asking, answering, participating and learning about environmental science, limnology, the “whole-ecosystem” concept, chemistry, ecological interactions, human impacts and more.

So far, ELSE has received a resounding thumbs up. When St.John’s-Ravenscourt School headed out on a pilot field course last year, they learned everything from quinzhee construction, fire-making, outdoor cooking, snowshoeing, skiing to general outdoor survival — all in the frigid March temperatures of northwestern Ontario, where the IISD-ELA is located.  The full ELSE course will be rolled out in July 2017.

But students need not even visit the site to experience the importance of IISD-ELA’s freshwater research. We recently, with funding from Canada’s RBC Blue Water Project, hosted an essay contest for Canadian high school students, asking them “How can we improve Canada’s fresh water?”

The response was impressive. More than 30 students from across the country entered with essays exploring how to save Lake Winnipeg, how we can improve water quality in the Great Lakes, and ideas for overall watershed management in Canada. Two deserving winners are about to be announced soon. Stay tuned to future issues of Great Lakes Connection.

Sumeep Bath is the media and communications officer at the IISD Experimental Lakes Area.