Beyond the Bead (the micro one)

Crest toothpaste

A federal law enacting a ban on plastic microbeads in shampoos, facial washes, toothpastes and other such products will be phased in starting 2017, but will it be enough to solve the plastic pollution problem plaguing our rivers, lakes and oceans?

“The microbead ban is an important step in the right direction, but we have a lot more work to do,”  Blake Kopcho, oceans campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, said of the Microbead-Free Waters Act that President Barack Obama signed into law Dec. 28 (story for subscribers here).

Under this law, manufacture of plastic microbeads in such products will start July 1, 2017, followed a year later by a ban on the manufacture of over-the-counter drugs as well as sale of rinse-off cosmetics containing these microplastics. The sale of over-the-counter drugs containing these products will take effect July 1, 2019.

The law will supersede the varying bans on manufacture and sales in nine states-- California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey and Wisconsin. Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson are among the many companies that have voluntarily agreed to phase out microbead use in personal care products.

Microbeads have become ubiquitous in the nation's waters because of their use in about 100 types of personal care products across the country. I examined the issues surrounding the ban of these microplastics in September, when the bill was still being debated.

According to the Personal Care Products Council, microbeads make up 0.1 percent of microplastics. The industry’s scientists also emphasize that no environmental harm has yet been documented from the use of such plastics. But the nonprofit 5 Gyres reminds us that microplastics account for 93 percent of the 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating in our waters, and that 0.1 percent of that figure is still a significant enough number.

Although no environmental harm has been correlated with these tiny spherical microplastics, which have eluded capture by wastewater treatment, environmental groups insist it is only a matter of time before further study uncovers that connection.

What is concerning now is that research has shown conclusively that microbeads act as sponges for more toxic chemicals and endocrine disruptors, such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and bisphenol A or BPA, among others. 

What’s more: research soon to be published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research by Environmental Chemistry Professor Sherri Mason at the State University of New York in Fredonia shows evidence that microbeads have been found inside 25 different species of fish including perch and trout in the Great Lakes.

Mason agreed that more studies are needed to evaluate the extent of harm arising from the fish consumption of microbeads and also to characterize the sources of microplastics including microbeads. She already is in the process of studying plastic pollution within 29 tributaries to the Great Lakes.

But groups such as 5 Gyres, Riverkeeper and Center for Biological Diversity don’t plan to wait to see the results of environmental damage owing to the accumulation of microplastics.

“While we are waiting for the microbead phase out to commence, we are going to redouble our efforts to pass policies that tackle major contributors of plastic pollution – like plastic bottles, microfibers, and plastic bags--at the source,” Kopcho told Bloomberg BNA.

-- By Amena H. Saiyid