Forget Your Own Health: Stop Drinking Diet Soda for the Good of the Great Lakes

Artificial sweeteners from soft drinks are polluting our largest freshwater resource.

Let's keep the pop out of the water, shall we? (Photo: Matt Schilder/Flickr)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

As if the invasive zebra mussels and Asian carp threatening the ecology of the Great Lakes weren’t enough, humans are invading the waters of Superior, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Ontario with our own detritus. There are the rafts of micobeads that now float across the surface of the world’s largest group of freshwater lakes, pollution courtesy of your exfoliating facial cleaners and body washes. And thanks to that diet soda habit you just can’t seem to kick, the Great Lakes are becomingly subtly sweet—and calorie-free!—because of artificial sweeteners that are evading wastewater treatment facilities and flowing into the watershed.

In a study published earlier this month by the journal PLOS ONE, researchers from Environment Canada and University of Waterloo tested the water from the Grand River at 23 sites between its headwaters and where it dumps into Lake Erie.

The results suggest the artificial sweetener acesulfame is the best at evading wastewater treatment, and it appears in far higher concentrations than the likes of saccharin or sucralose at the various test sites. At one testing location toward the Erie end of the Grand River, the researchers found the “equivalent amount of acesulfame in 81,850 to 188,650 355mL-cans of soda pop flowing past site 20 each day or 0.12 to 0.28 cans of soda pop per person.”

Forty million people get their drinking water from the Great Lakes, and just as artificial sweeteners are sneaking past wastewater treatment, some, such as acesulfame, can even curtail purification processes too. So if your childhood dream was for the drinking fountains to flow with diet cola, this is great news. If you would prefer your water sans any sweetener, artificial or otherwise, the findings of this study are more troubling.

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