Environment Picture

Cold, Clear and Deadly

An environmental detective tracks toxins fouling Lake Superior

Mel Visser is a veteran of battles among environmentalists and industrialists over Great Lakes contamination. Now he has transcended the divide with a riveting book—Cold, Clear and Deadly, published by Michigan State University Press—about his search for answers to the question of why toxic contamination continues to foul the Great Lakes, especially Lake Superior, which he came to love years ago while a student at Michigan Technological University.

The book is as much a fascinating travelogue of a career in environmental management and journeys from the Great Lakes to the Arctic as it is a call for action on a critical issue. One reviewer called it “a compelling environmental story [written] in a popular style.”

A former Upjohn environmental manager who lives in Portage, the 69-year-old Visser describes himself as “a curious guy who cannot let go of an interesting idea or challenge.” MER recently quizzed him on his book and the story behind it.

What’s the primary message of your book?
“Banned” toxic persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs, chlordane and toxaphene remain in the Great Lakes in dangerous amounts because of continuing megaton per year uses in developing countries.

Is there something in this book for the non-technical reader?
Cold, Clear, and Deadly is the first-person story of my search for answers. It is written for thinking environmentalists from all walks of life with no requirement for a chemistry or engineering degree.

Is there a health threat from chemicals in the Great Lakes and, if so, where does it come from?
The major health threat comes from fish consumption. The cancer causing and endocrine-disrupting substances are present in Great Lakes fish at dangerous levels to wildlife and man.

What surprised you most in the research and travel you did to write the book?
My path was full of surprises. The toxicity present in the Arctic was shocking, and the fact that the ecosystem for these chemicals is the hemisphere and they transport through the air is surprising. Finding that Lake Superior, because of its toxaphene amounts, is the most toxic Great Lake was surprising and the fact that in 2004, the states and provinces surrounding Lake Superior stopped including toxaphene in their fish consumption advisories is appalling. A very simple surprise was coming to realize that the Great Lakes are part of a hemispheric ecosystem…a very small part.

You make some observations about the business, government and environmental communities in the book. What do you think they are doing right and wrong on Great Lakes protection?
All players focus upon the Great Lakes basin with its watersheds as an ecosystem. Lake Superior’s trout have yet to feel the benefit of Zero Discharge, Virtual Elimination, “toxics elimination” and the clean up of sediments. There is virtually no focus on getting the major polluters in the developing world to ban the chemicals that we banned a quarter century ago. Acting locally to address a problem sourced globally is like replacing the wet carpeting and not fixing the hole in the roof.

If there was a single policy change you could bring about to deal with the problems identified in your book, what would it be?
Obtain U.S. ratification of the Stockholm Agreement to ban POPs and work with the 108 other signatories on globally banning PCBs in all uses, and the POPs pesticides in agriculture.

-Dave Dempsey, Michigan Environmental Council
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