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On whales, drinking water and the Great Lakes

A new documentary examines frightening contamination in the lakes and the wide-ranging consequences.

From Superior the water pours down to Lake Michigan, “the industrious lake” on the American side of the border. Chemicals from heavy industries lie at the bottom of the lake. The toxic sludge gets kicked up by storms or the propellers of freighters and is eaten by fish.

Twenty years ago, the U.S. government identified 43 Great Lakes harbors that are highly contaminated, including with PCBs. Only three have been cleaned up.

The film quotes Marc Tuchman, of the Environmental Protection Agency, estimating that 4 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment need to be dredged and disposed. In some areas, the sediment covers the lake bottom 25 feet deep. At the Fox River, a Lake Michigan tributary where some dredging is taking place, the film shows plastic rolls like giant pythons filled with contaminated sediment.

Also polluting the lakes are billions of liters of raw sewage. Flowing with it are pharmaceuticals that flush through our bodies and down the toilet. Even anti-depressants are being found in high quantities.

“Every drug we take is out there,” said environmental scientist Chris Metcalfe.

In Lake Huron, fertilizer and human waste is spurring outbreaks of algae that cause some children to break out in blisters.

At the lake’s southern tip, where oil refineries dominate the Ontario town of Sarnia, up to 70 percent of male frogs have testicular deformities. “Half of their testes are full of ova instead of sperm,” said toxicology biologist Pamela Martin, of Canadian Wildlife Services, a branch of the federal government.

The native Aamjiwnaang community there is surrounded by the petrochemical industry. For years, Aamjiwnaang mothers have given birth to two girls for every boy — defying the normal ratio of 51 percent boys and 49 percent girls. Door to door surveys of the community have found high rates of cancer, heart ailments and miscarriages.