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New pathogens, mercury threaten Great Lakes, health of millions of residents

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(CP) - New antibiotic-resistant pathogens, airborne mercury and urban sprawl are threatening the health of the Great Lakes and millions of people who live around the bodies of fresh water, a report to the Canadian and U.S. governments concludes.

While there has been a general improvement in water quality over the past 30 years, the International Joint Commission report released Monday warns new and emerging threats require urgent attention.

"Without adequate safeguards, our health can be threatened by pathogens and disease-bearing micro-organisms," the report states.

"The governments must focus increased attention on protecting the sources of drinking water supplies."

Dennis Schornack, American co-chairman of the commission, said the frequent use of antibiotics in livestock and humans is causing the problem.

Bacteria can develop immunity to the drugs, then end up in drinking water and cause illness, he said.

"We've got to become better at monitoring pathogens in the water and examine whether the waste-water treatment plants that we have in place are successfully killing the organisms," Schornack said.

Herb Gray, the commission's Canadian co-chairman, said the best way to tackle the problem is to curb the use of antibiotics.

The biennial report recommends better management of watersheds to mitigate the impact of agriculture, development, industry and urbanization - a daunting task.

"There are a large number of problems still to be dealt with," Gray said.

"(They) are large-scale. They'll require large amounts of money over an extended period of time."

Another threat identified in the report is airborne methyl-mercury, which ends up in the water. Most comes from regional coal-fired power generators, but some comes from as far as China.

Other chemicals, such as fire retardants commonly used for furniture, are posing new threats.

"Chemical contamination continues to endanger human health and restricts the number of fish we can safely eat," Gray said.

Another area of concern is the ongoing problem posed by alien species brought in by the ballast water of foreign ships.

Currently, about one new invasive species takes hold every eight months.

While there have been some successes in controlling their proliferation, none have ever been eradicated.

Still, Schornack said he believes overall water quality in the lakes has improved in recent decades.

As an example, he noted Lake Erie is now far healthier than it was 30 years ago.

However, the emergence of unexplained dead zones in the lake has raised new worries.

"We're very concerned about Lake Erie, not only for Lake Erie itself but for what it could be a harbinger of for the other lakes," Gray said.

Release of the report also coincides with the first major overhaul in 17 years of the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes water quality agreement, initially signed in 1978.

Both Grey and Schornack said they hope the review will result in a new deal that will given the joint commission more teeth to tackle threats to the Great Lakes.

"It's a tremendous opportunity the two countries have to protect this ecosystem," Schornack said.

However, the involvement of federal, provincial and state governments makes for complex jurisdictional issues, the chairmen admitted.

© The Canadian Press, 2004

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