Updated on September 8, 2017 at 12:58 PM Posted on September 8, 2017 at 11:57 AM
By Glenn Coin
Syracuse, N.Y. — As the cleanup of industrial pollution in Onondaga Lake enters its last phases, scientists are turning their attention to new threats to the lake, its river system and Lake Ontario.
Researchers from Syracuse University and the Upstate Freshwater Institute this summer are measuring the amount of pesticides, personal care products and pharmaceuticals pouring into the lake and river system from water treatment plants. The chemicals, known as "contaminants of emerging concern," are suspected of altering the function of hormones in humans and wildlife.
Onondaga Lake is particularly susceptible to those contaminants because up to 20 percent of the water that flows into the lake comes through the Onondaga County water treatment plant at the south end. That might be the highest percentage of any lake in the state, said Dave Matthews, director of the freshwater institute and one of the researchers in the study.
"It’s a relatively large treatment plant and a relatively small lake," he said. "The lake gets 20 percent of its water from a wastewater treatment plant that wasn’t designed to eliminate these emerging contaminants. It would seem to be an interesting place to look for them."
Researchers are collecting water samples from Onondaga Lake and the Oneida, Seneca and Oswego rivers all the way to Lake Ontario. The $24,502 study is funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
"This region serves as a prime site for this research because it receives high volumes of treated sewage from municipal wastewater treatment plants and is a major source of water to Lake Ontario," according to the initiative.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has put a new focus on emerging contaminants, which include personal care products that contain microbeads, pesticides, and drugs that pass through human digestive systems and then through sewage treatment plants into the environment.
The chemicals are part of a group called endocrine disruptors, which can "alter the normal functions of hormones, resulting in a variety of health effects" on humans and wildlife, the EPA said.
"Contaminants of emerging concern … are increasingly being detected at low levels in surface water," the EPA said, "and there is concern that these compounds may have an impact on aquatic life."
Matthews said the study will give the first glimpse into the amount of emerging contaminants in the lake and river system.
"This grant is intended to provide seed money to take an initial look to see if there’s anything interesting that would be deserving of further research," Matthews said.
The contaminants could be one reason Onondaga Lake has fewer amphibians than similar lakes, Matthews said.
"There’s a potential linkage between these emerging contaminants and the reproduction of sensitive organisms," Matthews said. "Amphibians tend to be one of the most sensitive species, so they can tell you about the health of the ecosystem."
Other research has suggested that mercury, which was dumped into the lake for decades and infiltrated the food chain from frogs to bats, might also be a culprit behind the low number of amphibians around the lake.
Matthews said water samples taken this summer will be analyzed and processed over the winter, and a results should be reported in early 2018.