Why are the Great Lakes, especially Lake Superior, still contaminated with toxic persistent organic pollutants (POPs) decades after these pollutants were banned in the United States and Canada? That question is explored and answered by scientist Mel Visser in the book Cold, Clear, and Deadly – Unraveling a Toxic Legacy.
Visser, a chemical engineer, worked for decades for the Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan, including a senior position directing the company’s environmental efforts. The first part of the book is essentially a memoir of Visser’s entry into the world of environmental policy and politics when his job evolved from engineer to company representative in numerous contentious environmental policy disputes in the 1980s and 1990s. In a very informal but straight-forward chronological style, Visser dishes the dirt on both industry and environmental group advocacy efforts at a series of International Joint Commission meetings and other Great Lakes policy gatherings. He gives a glimpse of both sides’ dogma and tactics that at times undermine their collective ability to come to solutions.
The second part of the book, which begins with Visser’s retirement from Upjohn in 1995, details his dedicated effort to figure out why POPs continue to threaten the Great Lakes long after the pollutants were banned in the United States and Canada. POPs are some of the most toxic pollutants, including PCBs, dioxins, and numerous pesticides such as the infamous DDT. These pollutants bioaccumulate up the food chain and threaten the health of fish, birds, and humans alike (there is a nice summary background on the ‘dirty dozen’ POPs on pages 118-121 of the book). Visser’s research relies on technical studies and reports, field investigations, and expert interviews. He concludes that POPs used in agriculture and industry in developing countries travel through global air circulation and eventually are deposited in northern waters, including the Great Lakes and Arctic. Thus, while banning POPs in the United States and Canada was an important first step in solving the problem, further action at the global level is needed. Banning POPs in developing countries is technically and economically feasible, but it will only happen with leadership from developed and developing nations alike.
Building on the work in his book, Visser has a Cold, Clear, and Deadly website with more information, including a blog on POPs research and policy developments. I also highly recommend a series of short interviews with Visser by author Dave Dempsey (part 1, part 2, and part 3). Visser makes clear that for anyone concerned with the health of the Great Lakes, acting locally isn't enough - we need a global solution to solve the problem of toxic pollutants in the Great Lakes.