COMMENTARY: Protecting Lake Superior: Religious Leaders, Pharmacists and Volunteers Join Forces to Keep Drugs out of the Water

The Third Annual Michigan Earth Keeper Clean Sweep

In an ongoing effort to protect our drinking water and the national jewel Lake Superior, thousands of northern Michigan residents are expected to turn in old and unwanted pharmaceuticals on Earth Day 2007 as a volunteer environmental army opens free collection sites for the third year in a row. Prescription medication and over-the-counter medicines will be collected across a 400-mile area at about two dozen free drop-off sites across Northern Michigan during the third annual Earth Keeper Clean Sweep on Earth Day 2007. Federal officials say the cutting-edge clean sweep is an excellent example of productive ways to protect Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes.

Trace amounts of pharmaceuticals are turning up in America"s drinking water and the Great Lakes.© GETTY IMAGES

"The Earth Keeper Pharmaceutical Collection event is an excellent opportunity to prevent the introduction of these chemicals into Lake Superior and other water bodies," says Elizabeth LaPlante, senior manager for the EPA Great Lakes National Programs Office in Chicago.

The 2007 Pharmaceutical Clean Sweep is targeting out-of-date and unwanted medications of all kinds, according to Carl Lindquist, executive director of the Superior Watershed Partnership. "By addressing the issue of pharmaceuticals in our waters the Earth Keepers are once again at the forefront nationally," says Lindquist, co-organizer of the Earth Keeper clean sweeps.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Lindquist say the reason for the clean sweep targeting medicines is that trace amounts of pharmaceuticals are turning up in America’s drinking water and the Great Lakes, because most treatment plants are not designed to filter out these medications. When pills or liquid medicines are poured down the sink or flushed down the toilet they remain diluted in the water supply after treatment and these trace amounts are suspected of causing a range of health problems, according to the EPA.

"As leftover and waste pharmaceuticals get flushed down drains, research is showing that they are increasingly being detected in our lakes and rivers at levels that could be causing harm to the environment and ecosystem," LaPlante says. "Specifically, reproductive and development problems in aquatic species, hormonal disruption and antibiotic resistance are some concerns associated with pharmaceuticals in our wastewater."

Lindquist says that recent national studies have documented that over 80 percent of the rivers sampled "tested positive for a range of pharmaceuticals including antibiotics, birth control hormones, antidepressants, veterinary drugs and other medications." He says some urban centers have even detected "traces of pharmaceuticals in their tap water."

Pharmaceuticals in some rivers have also been linked to behavioral and sexual mutations in species of fish, amphibians and birds, according to EPA studies. Pharmaceutical compounds known as endocrine disruptors have even been linked to neurological problems in children and increased incidence of some cancers, according to EPA studies.

Lindquist said the Earth Keeper Initiative and thus the Upper Peninsula "are ahead of the national curve" in addressing the pharmaceutical issue.

Reverend Jon Magnuson, Earth Keeper Initiative founder and co-organizer of the clean sweeps, said that combining religion and environmental protection is a perfect fit.

"This will be another step of a deepening connection between the traditions of faith and the critical challenges of the environment," says Magnuson. "The clean sweep is one of many signs of a new awakening, an historic shift of consciousness into the mystery of God and a gentle love for the planet."

A laughing nine-year-old Eve McCowen, and two other members of the Marquette Baha"i community, helps stack old electronics on Earth Day 2006 at the Messiah Lutheran Church in Marquette.© GREG PETERSON

About two dozen free drop-off sites will be open across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from 9 a.m. to noon local time on Saturday April 21, 2007 (Earth Day) and most collections are at the same location of previous clean sweeps.

In 2006, over 320 tons of electronic waste (old/broken computers, cell phones, etc.) were dropped off in just three hours by an estimated 10,000 U.P. residents. It took nine semi trucks to haul the e-waste to EPA-approved recycling centers in the Lower Peninsula. In 2005, the first clean sweep collected 45 tons of household poisons and vehicle batteries. The hazardous waste collected included more than two pounds of mercury, which was disposed of using state and EPA guidelines. Both previous clean sweeps broke EPA collection records for the Great Lakes, organizers said. Last fall, the Earth Keeper Initiative and its partners were honored with three international awards.

The third annual Earth Keeper Clean Sweep is again sponsored by nine U.P. faith communities with 130,000 members (40 percent of U.P. residents), the Superior Watershed Partnership, the Cedar Tree Institute, and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. The leader of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community says she’s pleased that the tribe and the KBIC Department of Natural Resources is supporting and participating in the clean sweep for the third year in a row. KBIC Tribal Council President Susan LaFernier is asking all tribe members to join fellow U.P. residents in dropping off old or unwanted pharmaceuticals on Earth Day 2007.

"We are all responsible for taking care of the precious environment that has been given to us from our Creator," says LaFernier. "Gathering and disposing of outdated pharmaceuticals properly not only will help the environment, it will protect human and animal lives from toxic chemicals that can reach our water and soil systems."

Reverend Magnuson, the head of Lutheran Campus Ministry at NMU, said he’s proud of the dedicated volunteers because "this Earth Keeper collection will be the largest event of its kind in the country covering fifteen counties and involving hundreds of volunteers. The Earth Keeper team will continue to set records for pollution prevention and Great Lakes protection on the community level."

The Earth Keeper Initiative received several prestigious awards in 2006, including an international Environmental Stewardship award from the Lake Superior Binational Program and the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC) Award. It was named one of the 15 hardest working non-profit projects in America in 2006 by World Magazine, an international religious publication.

Northern Michigan University EarthKeeper (NMU EK) Student Team project director Jennifer Simula says "this year’s Clean Sweep is going to be revolutionary—a collection like this is, as far as I know, unprecedented."

The NMU EK team was created last April as the student wing of the Earth Keeper Intiative. In addition to assisting in the annual clean sweeps, the NMU EK Student Team has numerous projects including Adopt-A-Watershed—cleaning, testing, and developing a plan for six tributaries to three of the Great Lakes—recruiting students for chapters at three other U.P. universities, plus youth and adult outreach on practical everyday ways people can reduce human impact on the environment.

"I"m really excited, not only about the energy I’m feeling from everyone involved so far, but about the education that’s happening through all of the NMU EarthKeepers talking to everyone they know about the dangers of improperly-discarded pharmaceuticals and what they’re

doing to our waterways," said Simula, an NMU graduate student from Michigan. "This is a topic that is rarely discussed—no one really knows about it."

According to EK Student Team Coordinator and NMU sophomore Ashley Ormson, 20, of Negaunee, "We feel as if the Earth Keeper culture has really spread, not only in our region but internationally as well, and for every person that climbs on board another goal is being reached." Ormson, a future attorney, wants to spend her junior year as a Senegal exchange student, followed by a year of service work through the Lutheran Student Movement’s Global Youth Mission.

Through the pharmaceutical clean sweep, Ormson said, the Earth Keepers "hope that we will be able to reach out to even more people in our community and spread the awareness of protecting our Earth."

The project involves the congregations of more than 120 churches and temples representing nine faith communities (Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist, Baha"i, Jewish, and Zen Buddhist). Bishop Alexander K. Sample, Roman Catholic Diocese of Marquette, said he is "proud that the Catholic community in the Upper Peninsula can be part of this continuing effort to care for God’s creation, which has been entrusted to our good stewardship."

"Now that we know more about the harmful effects this has on our water systems and how certain compounds cannot be removed by purification techniques currently in use, I hope this will raise awareness of how to properly dispose of them," says Bishop Sample, who oversees 97 U.P. parishes and missions with 65,400 members.

Catholic Earth Keeper team member Kyra Fillmore, a 29-year-old mother of two small children, said "It’s important for all people and in particular people of faith to take responsibility for the health of their neighbors and their environment."

"We are blessed in the U.P. to be surrounded by beautiful bodies of water and supportive communities who are participating in this call for stewardship and celebration," says Fillmore, a member of St. Louis the King Catholic Church in Harvey.

Catholic Earth Keeper team member Kelly Mathews of Big Bay says she and her husband, Chris Mathews, 45, recently cleaned out their medicine cabinets and found one bottle of prescription sinus medication that was 18 years old.

"I wonder how many people just pop open the pill container and flush the pills down the toilet," asks Mathews, a 36-year-old mother of two who says her family switched "years ago to natural remedies" because they believe those medications are usually safer than prescription medicines. Lutheran Bishop Thomas A. Skrenes of the Northern Great Lakes Synod (NGLS), says "medical prescription drugs keep people out of the hospital, help many to heal and are an important part of our health care system. But like all good things when they are abused or even just thrown away they can do damage to people and nature," says Skrenes, the head of 91 U.P. Lutheran congregations with 40,000 members.

"This has also been a great witness to the secular community who have dismissed religion as out of touch," said Tari Stage-Harvey, pastor of the Zion Lutheran Church in St. Ignace and Trinity Lutheran Church in Brevort (combined 100 parishioners). "Our communities of faith when touched by the spirit become a power that creates amazing change."

Lutheran Earth Keeper team member Joy Ibsen of Trout Creek says, "In a way, "side effects" is what Earth Keepers is all about—handling the side effects of our way of life. Most of the environmental problems we have are side effects of the way we live in today’s highly technological, often toxic and overly disposable world."

Citing success of the previous clean sweeps, the head priest of the U.P. Zen Buddhist community said "this sort of vigilance and care" is needed to protect the planet adding similar projects should be "vastly expanded" by others around the world because grassroots environmental projects "must be the order of things to come."

"The churches and temples are leading the way. Now, if only the politicians can catch up," says Reverend Tesshin Paul Lehmberg, leader of the 15 member Lake Superior Zendo—a Marquette Zen Buddhist temple.

For at least the third year in a row, northern Michigan’s Jewish community are turning their commitment to Tikkun Olam and Passover from a traditional observance to social action during April by participating in the clean sweep and other activities to protect the environment.

Dr. Rodney Clarken, chair of the Marquette Baha"i spiritual assembly, said he is pleased with the interfaith aspect of the clean sweeps and that Baha"ullah—the Prophet-Founder of Baha"i—stresses the importance of the "essential relationship between man and the environment."

"Not only in the obvious benefit to others on our planet who benefit by our taking better care our physical environment, but equally by our social and spiritual working together of different people and faiths, a much needed antidote to the social and spiritual pollution that we suffer from in our world today," said Clarken, NMU associate dean of Teacher Education and interim director of School of Education, adding there are about 40 members of Baha"i in the U.P., and 144,000 in the United States.

The Superior Watershed Partnership has ongoing programs that including Adopt-Your-Watershed, public environmental education, summer youth programs, land conservation, habitat restoration, energy conservation and numerous opportunities for volunteers to get hands-on experience in their communities, national parks, national forests and their local watershed.

GREG PETERSON is a freelance reporter in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and volunteer media advisor for the Earth Keeper Initiative.

CONTACT: Superior Watershed Partnership