You may have helped dump 19 tons of plastic into New York State waters in the past year simply by washing your face, shampooing your hair, or moisturizing your skin. Microbeads are the culprit — tiny, almost microscopic spheres of plastic found in hundreds of cosmetics and personal care products including shampoos, toothpastes, skin cleansers and more.
Labels boast of miraculous powers using generic terms such as “exfoliant” and invented words such as “MaxClean.” What they don’t say is the local sewage treatment plant can’t remove microbeads from community wastewater, which leaves only one final resting place — your local lake or river, and the fish that swim there. Unless of course you eat the fish. Then you may once again be home to hundreds of tiny bits of polyethylene — only now they can reside inside your body permanently rather than on the outside temporarily.
The Great Lakes are a notorious home to tons of microbeads. Leading the research is Sherri Mason, environmental chemist at SUNY Fredonia, which is a partner with Clarkson in EPA sponsored research into emerging pollutants in the Great Lakes (Watermark, 8/13). NRDC’s OnEarth reported on her work in 2013:
Some of the samples they collected from Lakes Huron, Superior, and Erie indicated the presence of as many as 450,000 bits per square kilometer—twice as many as had ever been recorded. And the scientists were mystified by the form that so many of these microplastics took: multicolored, perfectly spherical balls a fraction of a millimeter in diameter.
Further investigation solved the riddle. The tiny balls were plastic microbeads, of the kind found in many popular exfoliating facial scrubs. “It was like someone had taken an entire bottle of facial cleanser and poured it into our sample container,” says Sherri Mason.
Since then Dr. Mason’s research has become the basis for a scathing report on microbead pollution by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a stalled bill in the state legislature, and a ban on microbead containing products by Erie County. Chatauqua County is also considering a ban, reports today’s Buffalo News:
A study of Great Lakes plastics pollution was presented during Wednesday’s meeting of the Chautauqua County Planning and Economic Development Committee, which is weighing the possibility of a county ban on microbeads – the minuscule plastic particles used in soaps and other personal-care products.
Dr. Sherri Mason of SUNY Fredonia told the committee she surveyed the five Great Lakes in 2012 and 2013 and gathered large amounts of tiny plastic pieces, including microbeads traced to personal-care products and believed to be harmful to aquatic life. She said she hopes to receive funding to do a study on the degradation of plastics in fresh water in the Great Lakes.
Some personal care companies have promised to eliminate microbeads or find substitutes. But Attorney General Schneiderman does not think that is enough. Neither does Chatauqau County legislator Keith Armstrong, who does not want to wait for a state law, reports the The Buffalo News:
We wish we did not have to approach this on a county-by-county approach, but the fact is that until a number of counties get behind this it may not get done at the state level.
To learn more about Dr. Sherri Mason and her research, follow this link.
For the microbead webpage of 5 Gyres Institute, a partner in Dr. Mason’s work, follow this link.