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Since the mid-nineties, microbeads have been used in thousands of consumer products: shampoos, face scrubs and even toothpaste. Microbeads are polyethylene spheres, typically, a millimeter or less in diameter and almost invisible to the naked eye (Rozental-Evesque, 2010). Unfortunately, while they seem to be effective dirt and oil exfoliants, they are creating environment and health problems across the US.
In 2013, researchers at SUNY Fredonia discovered that these microbeads were appearing in large quantities in Great Lake soil samples, fish stomachs and even our drinking water, and they raised the alarm over possible adverse impacts to the environment (Eriksen et al, 2013).
Polyethylene – the plastic most microbeads are made of – is fairly benign, at least at first. It does not cause cancer. It doesn’t irritate skin. In fact, it does not do much of anything, including dissolve, or decompose (Rozental-Evesque, 2010). And this is the start of its hazard. Microbeads in personal care products eventually end up being washed down the drain. And because they’re so small, they escape capture in wastewater treatment plants, eventually ending up in rivers, lakes, and oceans (Pivokonsky eta al, 2018). Because microbeads do not decompose or sink, they are magnets for toxic chemicals and pathogens. Studies have shown that pesticides, flame retardants, and heavy metals dumped in the ocean cling to polyethylene (Sharma & Chatterjee, 2017).
The US is flushing roughly 300 tons of microbeads into our waters every year, says Professor Sherri Mason at the State University of New York at Fredonia.
We have measured a million microbeads per square kilometer at the surface of Lake Ontario. This is roughly equivalent to a polyethylene concentration of six parts per billion. This may not sound a lot, and it wouldn’t be if the plastic was the only problem. But even at this low concentration, the toxins absorbed into the microbeads could be an issue to our drinking water (S. Mason, personal communication, May 3, 2018).
To make matters worse, organisms that take up beads concentrate them into a smaller volume, potentially leading to higher exposures. “This isn’t an issue confined to microbeads. Micro plastics, millimeter-sized fragments of the plastic, which are continually being dumped into the environment, also suck up toxins, and pass them up the food chain (S. Mason, personal communication, May 3, 2018).
Obama-era regulations covered consumer hygiene products. However, there are many other forms of microbead products that slip through this legislation, including laundry detergent, floor scrubs and children’s toys. And the plastic industry is pushing back, subtly, “The (microbeads) that would not potentially be phased out would be ones that might be biodegradable in either wastewater treatment plant or in waterways”, says Keith Christman of the American Chemistry Council (Saiyid, 2017). Many environmentalists are concerned that the plastic industry wants to replace microbeads made of polyethylene polypropylene with microbeads made from bioplastic, PLA, which has all the same harmful effects in the ocean as does microbeads. A similar substitution happened before in 2010, when U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of baby bottles that contain bisphenol A (BPA), a compound frequently found in plastics, but recent research revealed that a common BPA replacement, bisphenol S (BPS), was just as harmful (Li eta al, 2018).
The bottom line is there’s a lot we still don’t know about long-term risks of microbeads, biodegradable or not. But given their propensity to soak up toxic chemicals and pathogens, side-step our water filtration systems, and (possibly) hurt wildlife, there is a good chance that they will only continue to grow as a problem for the environment and the public health. Therefore, I am writing this letter to you as a concerned citizen, to request your help, to raise awareness.
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