The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 20, 2013

Our View: Lakes reveal chemical abundance


The Mankato Free Press

---- — Even if your mother may not have had scientific data at her fingertips, she obviously knew what she was talking about when she said don’t drink lake water. A new study makes that advice more important than ever and raises concerns about how we treat our environment.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released a report last week that highlights how common chemicals are in our water. Scientists studied 50 lakes across Minnesota chosen at random and tested them for 127 compounds. All but three tested positive with one or more chemicals. Some of those chemicals included insect repellents, antibiotics and Bisphenol A (from plastic). The researchers also were surprised to find that about a third of the lakes tested contained cocaine.

It’s doubtful that Minnesota is the capital of cocaine use, so the fact there are measurable concentrations of cocaine in our water points to how no borders, walls or state lines exist when it comes to chemical drift or contamination. MPCA officials said in the case of cocaine, small amounts escape into the air and hitch a ride on dust particles, which eventually fall into Minnesota lakes.

In south-central Minnesota, strides have been made to keep drugs out of water sources by offering public drop-off sites for drugs, illegal and not — no questions asked. The drugs are collected by law enforcement and eventually incinerated, a better option than flushing them into sanitary sewer systems or burying them to later leech into landfills.

Public awareness of the damage done by incorrectly disposed drugs and chemicals is a key step in tackling the problem of contaminated water. Dumping substances down the drain used to mean out of sight, out of mind. Education has curbed the practice somewhat, but there always more to be done in that area.

Beyond individual households keeping chemicals out of water systems and waterways, it’s clear that action on a higher level is going to be key to cracking down on keeping chemicals out of water. One of the antibiotics found in 28 percent of the lakes in the study is carbadox, which is used in swine. The MPCA said it’s a carcinogen that has been banned in Europe and Canada; but it can be used in this country, with U.S. regulations requiring pig farmers to stop feeding it to the animals 40 days before slaughter. If it’s still ending up in our water, the controls on it don’t appear to be effective enough.

And despite upgrades to wastewater systems throughout the state, it’s important that Minnesota continue to be a leader in pushing for the latest technology to keep on top of the most environmentally aggressive measures to keep our water sources as clean as possible. We are the land of more than 10,000 lakes, but if those lakes and other waterways are full of chemicals, it doesn’t offer us much for bragging rights.

Arguments can always be made that no one has proven that exposure to certain chemicals at certain levels definitely does damage. But how much exposure to how many chemicals do we want to inflict upon our children and grandchildren to find out?