The Great Lakes Are One Big Basin: Health and Environmental Data Should Be, Too

IJC staff
January 07, 2014
The Great Lakes Are One Big Basin

Before you drink a glass of water, you make an informed decision. Once  you’ve decided that the water has been properly treated and comes from a reliable source, you take a sip.

The same is true of health and environmental data, and agencies charged with protecting and restoring the Great Lakes. Before steps are taken, information has to be assessed.

Making that decision about the water in your glass was pretty easy, but other decisions demand more information from many different sources. And while there may be a wealth of data out there, gathering it all in one place is not easy. But a new report takes a step in that direction. 

The IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board has compiled and categorized more than 250 datasets on environmental stressors like runoff, wastewater discharges, pathogens and air pollution; along with environmental hazards, human exposure and human health outcomes such as those that may come from eating contaminated fish. Gaps in that data also have been identified.

The findings: Health and environmental exposure data isn’t being collected in an ideal way, to allow public health and environmental scientists and managers easy access to examine and compare it across the Great Lakes basin.

The report urges leaders in the two countries to make improvements that will allow scientists and others to better integrate data, and connect the dots between environmental risks and public health.

Eight recommendations from the report include that the governments work together with experts in their countries to prioritize areas and populations for data integration and collection, including young children, pregnant women, and First Nations and tribes.

The report also recommends that the IJC encourages governments to set up a cooperative data management system for human health and environmental exposure for the basin, with data that is accessible to researchers and the general public.

From the cover page of the data integration report.From the cover page of the data integration report.

To quote the report:

“Significant pollution of the Great Lakes can expose the 35 million basin residents to serious health problems while imposing recreational restrictions and economic losses. To mitigate this, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States aims to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes and includes several specific objectives to accomplish this.

However, one of the important challenges that environmental-health practitioners and policy-makers face is understanding the specific health impacts of the contamination of the Great Lakes Basin and their magnitude. A barrier to attaining this understanding is the lack of integrated environmental and human health currently collected surveillance data.”

Don’t get the wrong idea. There’s great work being done in Canada and the U.S. to collect and analyze environmental data related to human health. Those include the Great Lakes Observing System and CAREX Canada.

However, since the Great Lakes are a shared boundary resource, integrating this data into one system will allow people in both countries to better understand the current state of health in the region and benefit from this shared knowledge.

To read the report, see “Health and Environmental Data in the Great Lakes Basin - Integrating Data Collection and Analysis” on the board’s website.

To inform potential Commission recommendations in the future, we’re also taking comments from the public, which can be submitted by clicking on a link at the bottom of this page.

For more, see the news release: "Commission Releases Expert Panel’s Report on Integration of Environmental and Human Health Data."

* Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the report had been sent to governments.  

IJC staff