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Study finds toxins prevalent in Canadian lakes

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In recent months, I’ve heard many well-travelled people cite our country’s abundance of freshwater lakes as something that is not only unique from many other parts of the world, but also what makes Canadians so lucky. With that, as well as some recently published research in mind, it’s pertinent that we work to maintain that luxury.

Published in the NRC Research Press, a recent cross-Canada study found potent human toxins to be prevalent throughout Canada’s freshwaters, with the highest concentrations found in lakes among popular cottaging regions in southern Manitoba and Alberta. However, Ontario cottagers are hardly off the hook, as all regions contained lakes with toxin levels that raised concern. In fact, the levels often exceeded the maximum guidelines for potable and recreational water quality.

Although it’s well-known that sewage and agricultural runoff can cause water quality problems, this study is the first to report on its prevalence at a national scale and, according to a report in The Globe and Mail, it’s also one of the first times scientists have been able to quantify the presence of microcystins (also known as blue-green algae) in our lakes, which have been classified as possible human carcinogens and have been associated with the death and illness of wildlife.

After finding a strong association between low nitrogen-to-phosphorus and high microcystin concentrations, lead author and researcher with the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, Diane Orihel, says the next step would be to conduct large-scale experiments to manipulate nitrogen-to-phosphorus ratios so that researchers can develop nutrient-management strategies. Previously, this work would have been done in the Experimental Lakes Area, however, after much criticism, government funding for the organization was pulled earlier this summer.

Of course, there are always things cottagers can do to help.

While you may already work hard to make sure your activities don’t negatively impact the water you swim, fish and boat in at the cottage—whether it’s properly managing your septic system or using certain soaps when bathing in the lake—there are other things you can do at both your summer and winter homes to help ensure you continue to enjoy all of the great things that come with life by the lake.

If you’re looking for a little guidance, Ontario’s RAIN program works toward this very goal by motivating action to reduce non-point source pollution entering Ontario’s lakes and rivers. The organization has come up with three main rules for managing storm water runoff, which allows pollutants to wash into our waterways:

Slow it down: Install a rain barrel at each downspout and empty before the next rain; plant some trees, which can slow up to 30 percent of all precipitation; conserve water.

Soak it up: Again, plant some trees, which will help intercept storm water; when you’re planning your next garden, try placing it in an area that will collect rainwater runoff from hard surfaces.

Keep it clean: Pick up dog waste; wash your car at a commercial car wash; only use natural fertilizers and spread during dry days; properly put out cigarettes and dispose of in the garbage; use natural cleaning and personal products.

For more information and tips, check out the RAIN program’s website as well as our own expert advice on how to protect your lake from blue-green algae.