Don't opt out: click here to learn more about our work.

Saving the Great Lakes from ecological disaster

The consequences of climate change on our largest freshwater system

Saving the Great Lakes from ecological disaster

As summer approaches, students are exchanging their scantrons for swimsuits and pencils for popsicles. For many, summer plans will involve the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes are an epicentre of recreational, economic, and ecological activity. 9.8 million Canadians, about a third of our country’s population, rely on them. Carved thousands of years ago by retreating glaciers, the Great Lakes are a unique ecosystem housing a fifth of the world’s freshwater.

However, concealed by the rolling waves and the glassy surface of the lakes is evidence of environmental damage caused by humans over the last few centuries.

We have not always been kind to the Great Lakes. Heavy human use of the lakes has resulted in habitat loss and fragmentation, the introduction of invasive species, and environmental pollution. The invasion of zebra mussels and clouds of green algae blooming from phosphorus runoff are just two consequences of human activity to make headlines.

More than 3,500 species of plants and animals call the Great Lakes home, and for some, this is the only place where they can exist. Faced with the growing consequences of climate change, the Great Lakes system is coming under even more stress and is possibly reaching a tipping point.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center report

In March, the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), an American non-profit advocacy group, released a report detailing the effects of climate change on the Great Lakes.

Although it is widely understood that the consequences of climate change – like rising temperatures and more extreme weather events – will affect everyone, this report also detailed specific consequences for those who live in the Great Lakes region.

Increasingly severe weather patterns will bring hotter, drier summers to the area, causing heat waves. They will also bring wetter springs and winters, which will trigger flooding and increased water flow.

From the early 1900s to 2015, the Great Lakes region experienced a 10 per cent increase in precipitation, compared to the rest of the United States, which had only experienced an increase of four per cent.

“We’re seeing more and more of these… powerful wind storms, rain storms, [and] thunderstorms in the summer, and more milder winters for sure,” said Dr. Harvey Shear, a professor of geography at UTM, who teaches courses on the Great Lakes.

However, the ELPC anticipates that by 2100, the Great Lakes region will have less moisture in the summer, leading to fewer periods of intense precipitation at the start of the season.

Intensifying heat will bring about more days with temperatures above 33 degrees Celsius. By 2100, the ELPC report predicts that the Great Lakes region will experience an additional 30 to 60 days of such temperatures per year.

These intensified patterns of precipitation and hotter temperatures will translate into devastating consequences for the environment and our society. Shortened growing periods, increased disease, and the rising prevalence of waterborne pathogens will directly affect humans.

Nothing new

While it may seem like a shock to find that the Great Lakes region will experience such severe changes in the near future, researchers are not surprised by some of these consequences.

“We have modified the Great Lakes over the last 400 years to the point where they’re almost unrecognizable from what we would have seen if we [went] back in time,” explained Shear.

A case in point is the St. Lawrence River, which has been carved out to accommodate human activities since 1680. Construction began for the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1954 to directly connect the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. The $470.3 million seaway enabled cities like Toronto and Chicago to expand their commercial shipping industries, bringing in more than $6 billion USD per year to the Great Lakes region.

However, the seaway’s completion resulted in the decimation of the system by invasive species like sea lampreys. Sea lampreys are circular-mouthed fish with hooked teeth that attach themselves to native fish, feeding on their bodily fluids and abandoning them to succumb to their wounds. During their parasitic stage, lampreys kill approximately 40 pounds of fish over 12 to 18 months.

Spiny water fleas, zebra mussels, and other invasive species have also found their way to the Great Lakes system through shipping freighters. When taking on water in their ballast tanks, which are designed to stabilize vessels that are unloading or taking on cargo, these ships will also take on waterborne invasive species. Zebra and quagga mussels, in particular, are known for clogging water intake pipes and being costly to remove.

As temperatures continue to rise, native inhabitants of the lakes will endure added stress from an ecosystem where they are already competing with their non-native neighbours, likely forcing these species to shift to more northern regions.

These concerns are not new — the original 1971 edition of Dr. Seuss’ children’s book, The Lorax, referenced the dire state of Lake Erie. In the 1930s, runoff from fertilizer and waste from humans and animals introduced phosphorus into the lake. Annual phosphorus input soared from about 3,000 tons in 1800 to 24,000 tons in 1960, after the introduction of the mineral in cleaning agents after World War II. The high phosphorus levels caused an overgrowth of algae, clouding the water and killing off other species in a phenomenon known as eutrophication.

State and provincial governments around Lake Erie took action to limit the addition of phosphorus to soap, and began working with local farmers to reduce the amount of phosphorus input by more than half. However, new sources of phosphorus appeared in the 1990s, returning phosphorus levels in Lake Erie to previous conditions.

These algal blooms are more than an eyesore. A species of cyanobacteria called Microcystis causes such harmful algae blooms by producing a toxin called microcystin. The toxin can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and in high enough quantities, liver failure in humans.

Microcystis gripped Toledo, Ohio in 2014, when Lake Erie was subjected to two harmful algae blooms that year due to a one-two punch of increased precipitation and warmer temperatures. The toxin overwhelmed the city’s water filtration system, leaving half a million residents without clean water for three days.

Not all strains of Microcystis produce this toxin, but researchers have found that warmer growing conditions have increased the prevalence of the toxic strain, suggesting that this phenomenon could become more prevalent in the future.

Although some of these consequences listed in the ELPC report are not a result of climate change alone, climate change could worsen their effects in the coming years.

The looming storm

The consequences of climate change are not so far off. Shear noted that significant shifts can happen quickly within a year or two, intensifying extreme weather events.

“With climate change you’re dealing with very long-term changes over decades which makes it easy to attribute extreme weather events to normal year to year variation,” said Shear.

A more tangible consequence of the changing climate, continued Shear, is the uptick of unpredictable weather events, such as violent wind storms. In fact, climate change may have caused the Toronto Islands and the Harbourfront to flood in spring 2017

Shear further explained that we have hardened the surfaces of urban areas with hectares of paved roads and roofs that don’t absorb water. “So when it does rain, there’s nowhere for the water to go but straight into the streams and into [the] lake.”

“[The] Lake Ontario water level was fairly consistent,” he continued, “and then the water level began to rise because of the rainfall and snowmelt… that [had] nowhere to go.”

Concurrent flooding in Montréal, due to extra water in the Ottawa River and St. Lawrence Seaway, denied the officials the option of draining Lake Ontario into the sea to lower the water level.

Although the islands reopened later that summer, visitor attendance was down for the rest of the season, costing the city approximately $5 million in lost ferry revenue, in addition to costs from property damage.

That 2017 flood should be a sobering sign that the Great Lakes will not stay the way they are for very long.

Economic damage

Viewing environmental damage through an economic lens helps put the consequences of changing conditions into perspective. The Great Lakes provide over 1.5 million jobs and generate $60 billion in wages annually for local workers. The regional economy of the Great Lakes system is valued at $6 trillion, which is more than the GDP of countries such as Japan, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

With the prospects of decreased employment, damaged infrastructure, and forgone revenue, it raises the question of whether or not we are willing to lose an ecosystem that benefits local economies so much. It’s not that the Great Lakes will cease to exist, but that the system will cease to be a sustainable habitat for not only plants and animals, but for ourselves as well.

Starting change

Seeing the consequences of our past actions shows how much of an impact our behavior can have. But how can we begin to undo the damage that we have done?

Canada and the United States have pledged to reduce the amount of phosphorus in the Great Lakes by 40 per cent by 2025. However, this goal has proven to be tougher to match now than it was in the past. Unregulated farms, dissolved phosphorus, and different phosphorus sources causing the algal blooms have made it harder for the countries to meet their targets. With the added threat of rising temperatures, the threat of algal blooms is imminent.

The Ontario Great Lakes Strategy 2016 progress report outlined the collective efforts of the government, scientists, Indigenous peoples, and private-sector organizations to work toward returning the Great Lakes to a state where they are not at risk of ecological collapse. However, governments have yet to impose hard-hitting restrictions on certain behaviours such as the use of phosphorus by the agriculture industry.

In 2018, then-Ohio governor John Kasich signed an executive order to restrict agricultural runoff, which contributes to algal blooms, by setting requirements for how nutrients in animal waste and fertilizer should be stored.

But government intervention isn’t the only source of change in our society. Organized groups of concerned citizens have a created huge impact on these pressing matters.

According to Shear, citizen activism has led to eradication of all sources of mercury in the Lake Superior Basin and to the cleanup of the Love Canal disaster in New York in the mid-twentieth century.

Love Canal was the site of a failed energy project that became a landfill, which was eventually buried and sold to the city for development. Decades later, chemicals began to seep up through the ground, exposing the region’s residents to carcinogens and teratogens, which are implicated in deforming embryos.

“It was citizen activism in Niagara Falls, Ontario that linked with citizen activists in Niagara Falls, New York that really brought [the provincial, state, and federal governments] to shut down Love Canal… to prevent the contamination of the Niagara River,” said Shear. “So citizen activism can really work.”

In building our cities, we did not plan to bring harm to our environment. Rather, we were careless and uninformed about how our actions could damage the very home we live in. As we learn about why these ecologically devastating events occur and how human activity causes them, we must take action to prevent further damage and restore what we can.

We could otherwise negligently trek forward and continue to make decisions that harm not only ourselves, but those who will come after us.

How can students get involved in science policy?

Fighting for science and the decisions it informs

How can students get involved in science policy?

With the recent anniversary of Toronto’s March for Science, it’s hard to ignore changes rolled out by the Ford government this past year.

Not only has the government scrapped initiatives such as Ontario’s cap and trade carbon tax program and energy efficiency programs, it eliminated the position of Environmental Commissioner and fired Ontario’s Chief Scientist. Many of us who disagree with these changes are wondering where and how we can have our voices heard, especially since the march — which sought to encourage science that works for all — did not take place this year.

Having a seat at the table is the first step toward the inclusion of scientific evidence in policy. This means showing up to city hall meetings and contacting local representatives about science issues that matter to you.

“There are many competing voices [in policy], and there will be trade-offs and balances. Our job is to help people understand what those trade-offs really mean,” said Dr. Dan Weaver, Assistant Professor in UTSC’s Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences.

Each year at U of T and across the world, research yields mountains of new scientific data. Weaver noted that we must continue to incorporate this new data, see if our goals should shift, and ask ourselves if policy and the public are still informed. For researchers, this means communicating findings effectively to those drafting policy.

Weaver pointed to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris as an example of effective communication. Initially, limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius was set as a policy goal, but further scientific evidence showed that the outcomes would be less costly and far more manageable if capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius instead. This informed policymakers and inspired stronger initiatives for more aggressive emission reductions.

Let’s Talk Science and U of T’s Science Communication Club, both organizations that focus on science communication and outreach, are outlets for students to advocate for science. According to UTM PhD candidate Sasha Weiditch, students can also create their own blogs or participate in activities with groups such as Soapbox Science.

For those interested in policy, Toronto Science Policy Network (TSPN), co-founded by U of T PhD candidate Ellen Gute, regularly organizes workshops on science advocacy, communication, and policy, in addition to hosting panel discussions. These workshops teach students and researchers how to translate their knowledge into an accessible format for the public and for political representatives.

Initiatives outside of campus, such as Citizen Science, allow people to assist in the collection of important data, work on environmental monitoring, or get involved with public science education and awareness.

There are many ways to fight for science as citizens, students, and whoever we will be in the future.

Instead of showing up en masse to march in the streets this year, we must show up in equally great numbers to our campuses, city halls, and voting booths, to communicate the critical importance of science for our democracy and the world at large.

Over the counter, under the table

What influence do pharmaceutical companies have on drug costs?

Over the counter, under the table

The dark side of drug pricing was thrust into the news in early February when CWC Pharmacies (Ontario) Ltd., the operator of a number of Costco pharmacies in Ontario, was fined $7.25 million CAD for accepting rebates from generic drug companies.

Rebates are discounts or kickbacks that manufacturers give to pharmacies that serve as incentives to fill their shelves with certain brands of generic drugs over others. While they can take the form of currency, they can also be exchanged as discounts, refunds, trips, free goods, or any other benefits.

“Each company wants to get their drugs to be the one that the pharmacist chooses,” explained Dr. Joel Lexchin, Associate Professor in UofT’s Department of Family & Community Medicine, in an interview with The Varsity. “The drug may list at a dollar-a-pill, but drug companies will say, ‘We will give a discount or a rebate to the pharmacist.’ So the pharmacist pays them a dollar-a-pill, [and] the drug company gives back 20 cents as an incentive for the pharmacy to use their particular generic version.”

This process doesn’t involve the patient directly losing money, but the savings are not passed onto the patient as they should be. In the case of publicly-funded pharmaceuticals, this ultimately hurts taxpayers.

Drug laws concerning rebates are specific to each province. According to the Ontario Drug Benefit Act and the Drug Interchangeability and Dispensing Fee Act, it is illegal for pharmacies to accept rebates from drug manufacturers.

Rising prices

In their 2017 “Health at a Glance” report, the multinational Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that in 2015. Canadians paid $756 USD per capita for pharmaceuticals, far above the average of $553 USD per capita for other OECD countries. The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) forecasted that in 2017, pharmaceutical spending for Canadians would rise to $1,086 CAD per capita — around $840 USD at the time — or roughly $39.8 billion — around $30 billion USD — in total.

Rising costs have forced patients to make adjustments to afford their medication. A 2018 study from the University of British Columbia found that approximately 2.5 per cent of Canadians, or 731,000 people, were borrowing money to pay for prescription drugs in 2015. This group consists of young adults, people in poorer health, and individuals without prescription drug insurance. In 2016, Canadian public health researchers found that 5.5 per cent of Canadians were not able to fulfil at least one of their prescriptions due to cost.

Every year, the financial barriers preventing Canadian patients from taking their medication are responsible for up to 640 deaths due to ischemic heart disease and up to 420 premature deaths of working-age Canadians with diabetes.

Branding

So how do drug prices become so high?

The Patented Medicine Prices Review Board (PMPRB) assesses the initial pricing of name brand drugs by comparing them to average prices in other countries, noting potential excessive pricing according to the Excessive Price Guidelines. Since 1993, the PMPRB has recovered $195 million CAD in excess revenues. However, the PMPRB cannot guarantee the control of the prices charged by drug wholesalers or pharmacies, but reviews patentees’ changes to regulate reduction in pricing and excess revenues.

“The price of the [name brand] drug is set based on what the company thinks the market will pay and that varies depending on what the illness is,” explained Lexchin. “How much are you willing to pay for a drug that will help relieve your sore throat that you will have for a week? Well maybe you’ll pay 50 cents or a dollar-a-pill… On the other hand, if you’re told that you have a cancer that is going to kill you in six months and we have a drug now that’s going to double your life expectancy, you’re going to be willing to pay more than 50 cents or a dollar. And companies take advantage of that and that’s primarily how they set their price.”

Name brand drugs act as a price ceiling for generic drugs. Patents protect name brand drugs from competition for the first 12–13 years that they are on the market. Once the patent expires, companies can release their own generic versions for a fraction of the cost. Thus, in order to bring down the cost of generics, the price of name brand drugs must first be lowered.

From 2015–2016, patented drug sales increased $400 million CAD from $15.1 billion to $15.5 billion. Although patented drugs only accounted for 27.6 percent of the drug costs in 2016, they accounted for 74.7 percent of total expenditures. Of the $756 USD per capita spending in 2015, approximately $330 USD was spent on patented drugs.

What can be done about this?

Widespread federal coverage is one of many drug reforms ideas that Lexchin and other professionals have advocated for to reduce the grip of drug companies on consumers.

Lexchin explained that through a Canada-wide drug plan, the nation would wield more bargaining power with pharmaceutical corporations than any single individual could. With a single government buyer controlling the market, name brand drug companies would be forced to lower their prices or risk losing out on a substantial portion of Canadian consumers.

However, in 2015, only 36 per cent of drugs were covered by the Canadian government, compared to other OECD countries such as Germany and Luxembourg where at least 80 per cent of pharmaceuticals were covered.

Lexchin also described a need for greater public scrutiny of the pharmaceutical industry.

For instance, the Open Pharma campaign is a movement led by resident physician Dr. Andrew Boozary advocating transparency regarding transactions between drug makers and healthcare professionals. Open Pharma focuses on the endorsement of drugs and other influential behaviours by the pharmaceutical industry.

But until drug reforms are implemented, pharmaceutical companies will continue to reap benefits at the expense of patients and taxpayers.

Revisiting environmental policies to protect coral reefs

Certain sunscreen chemicals wreak havoc on coral reefs and marine ecosystems

Revisiting environmental policies to protect coral reefs

Hawaii is set to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. According to Senate Bill 2471, which was passed by Hawaiian state lawmakers in May and will go into effect in 2021, the two compounds contribute to coral bleaching and are harmful to marine ecosystems.

“Coral bleaching describes the phenomenon whereby corals lose their colour [so] their appearance becomes ‘bleached,’” explained Igor Lehnherr, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at UTM, in an email to The Varsity. “Bleaching occurs when environmental stressors cause zooxanthellae to lose their photosynthetic pigments or to be expelled from the coral.”

Stressors that can cause coral bleaching include warming ocean temperatures, increased ultraviolet (UV) radiation, the presence of certain pollutants in the oceans, and ocean acidification.

However, it is unclear whether the extent of pollution is similar on Canadian coastlines and  whether deep cold water corals are experiencing catastrophic bleaching events.

Rising water temperatures from greenhouse gas accumulation is still the primary cause of mass coral bleaching, but scientists acknowledge chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate also contribute to bleaching events. The two chemicals kill developing coral and increase the likelihood of coral bleaching, even at temperatures below 30.5 degrees Celsius.

“Corals can recover from bleaching episodes, and some coral species are more resilient than others,” said Lehnherr. “However, the increasing frequency of bleaching events hampers the coral’s ability to recover, increases mortality and is a threat to the long-term future of coral reefs.” The mass deposition of oxybenzone and octinoxate only exacerbates coral bleaching.

Each year, high volumes of sunscreen-wearing tourists travel to sunny coasts like that of Hawaii’s and, in turn, reefs are exposed to thousands of tons of sunscreen per year. Oxybenzone is found in parts per trillion concentrations off the coast of Barrow, Alaska to parts per billion on coral reefs in the Caribbean, Pacific, and Red Sea. In Honolua Bay, on the northern end of Maui, Hawaii, 1.9 parts per billion of oxybenzone were measured in 2015.

On Canada’s coast, there are the Atlantic deep-water coral habitat and the Pacific rocky reef habitat. They provide a complex habitat that is important for a variety of deep sea species. Canada should especially pay attention to regions that see a high number of tourists. Research efforts are already underway to protect Canada’s deep-water corals, but the country needs to determine whether or not it should follow in Hawaii’s footsteps.

For a similar policy to pass in Canada, researchers must determine whether any chemicals found in sunscreens are contributing significantly to the destruction of the aquatic ecosystems on Canadian coastlines.

“We’d have to think about whether it would be likely for reefs in Canada to be exposed to the same chemicals that the reefs near popular tourist destinations like Hawaii might be,” said Lehnherr. Like microbeads, wastewater effluent containing oxybenzone and octinoxate get washed off people in showers and pools, and this will have to also be assessed when determining the level of potential harm.

This is not the first time Canada has had to consider the environmental harm caused by household products. A recent example of this was the federal government’s ban on microbeads following a scientific review confirming its harmful effects.

Microbeads contain fragments of plastic and are found in lakes, rivers, and streams, and they take centuries to disintegrate. The ban is expected to go into full effect starting July 1, 2019 — microbeads in natural health products and non-prescription drugs will be the last items added to the list of prohibited products.

However, such policy changes take years to implement. A ban on oxybenzone and octinoxate in sunscreens will be an equally difficult undertaking that could affect mainstream sunscreens brands or cosmetic products that contain added UV protection. Banning these two chemicals may drastically reduce the selection of safe and effective sunscreen products available on the market.