The tiny plastic particles that became more popular in soaps and facial scrubs over the last few years are showing up on beaches and in the waters of the Great Lakes, especially Lake Erie.
A report to be released today by state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman renews his call for a first-in-the-nation ban on the sale of products containing the microbeads. And the report offers more details on the environmental effects of the particles, which are about the size of a grain of salt.
A Fredonia State College professor who has been at the forefront of researching microbead pollution in the Great Lakes said their presence is already noticeable.
“Our beaches are slowly becoming plasticized,” said Sherri Mason, an associate professor of chemistry at Fredonia. “People don’t realize how many actual particles are under their feet. They’re small, but you can definitely see them.”
The microbeads get there through a journey that starts with a bathroom drain. After the beauty products are used over a sink or in a bathtub, the microbeads are rinsed down the drain. Because the plastic microbeads float, they flow with treated wastewater into bodies of water.
A single tube of face wash can contain more than 350,000 of the beads, according to the 5 Gyres Institute, an environmental organization that works to reduce plastics pollution.
Microbeads are not removed by wastewater treatment plants because, unlike organic sewage, they neither bind together and settle in the effluent nor are they eliminated through biological controls. Therefore, an estimated 19 tons of microbeads a year pass through and are discharged into the state’s waters.
“I don’t think people are aware that this is everywhere,” Mason said. “Any water body that has a wastewater treatment plant has this problem.”
Microplastics, scientists say, pose ecological and biological threats to the environment by disrupting the food chain, slowly poisoning wildlife and humans by changing the biological chemistry of our bodies.
For many, the issue is just becoming known.
“That was a shock to me that they were even there,” said Jim Hanley, a local charter fishing boat captain. He said he first learned of the problem last month during a local forum about Lake Erie.
“One of the things I always say is the best conservationists on the planet are the hunters and fishermen because they are out there,” Hanley said. “Anything that’s polluting the lake, whether it’s microbeads or septic tanks seeping into the lake – it’s a big concern to us.”
Mason’s early studies showed, for the first time, that plastics were present in all five Great Lakes.
Lakes Erie and Ontario have the highest concentrations of microbeads. Mason’s initial sampling showed areas near Buffalo recorded some of the highest levels. The research also showed lesser concentrations of microbead plastics in the higher and less-populated areas near lakes Superior and Huron.
Lake Erie averaged about 46,000 particles of plastic per square kilometer, compared to about 6,000 to 8,000 particles over the same area in lakes Superior and Huron and about 17,000 particles in Lake Michigan.
The figure was closer to 80,000 particles in Lake Ontario.
What that seems to show, Mason said, is the particle concentrations increase as water flows through the Great Lakes system.
“It’s a very insidious problem,” said Paul Dyster, the Niagara Falls mayor who also serves as a regional director on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a binational coalition of local officials that works with governments to protect and restore the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.
The group supports the proposed microbead ban.
Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said the issue should be at the forefront of everyone’s consciousness in the region.
“If you care about the Great Lakes, you should be aware or concerned about this,” Jedlicka said. “Microbeads are an emerging threat. Threats should not have to reach crisis proportions for us to take action.”
Studies indicate microbeads are not able to pass through filters into drinking water.
Also, manufacturers like Proctor and Gamble, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive have already voluntarily agreed to phase out microbeads in their products.
Others, like Burt’s Bees, have never used them.
“New York has always been at the forefront of national progress when it comes to addressing the issue of plastic pollution,” Schneiderman said. He encouraged consumers to avoid products containing polyethylene or polypropylene.
“We require plastic-bag recycling in large stores. We banned harmful chemicals in baby bottles and pacifiers. We are expanding our bottle-deposit law to include plastic water bottles,” said Schneiderman.
“By passing the Microbead-Free Waters Act, we will show that New York remains a leader in protecting the health of our families and our environment,” he said.
The bill, which would prohibit the sale of products containing microbeads, was passed earlier this month by the state Assembly. State Sen. Mark A. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, sponsored the legislation in the Senate as Environmental Conservation Committee chairman.
Microbeads in the water are consumed by fish and other wildlife and ultimately humans.
It’s the plasticizer – a chemical added to provide more flexibility and stretchability – found in the plastic that is the concern.
“It’s the plasticizers that can include 30 to 70 percent of the mixture,” said Mason. “Plasticizers aren’t chemically balanced. The plasticizers can move in and out of plastic and into you.”
One of the most commonly recognized plasticizers – BPA – is already banned in many of Europe’s food containers. The United States and Canadian governments have also enacted bans to keep the chemical out of plastic baby bottles and other containers.
Preliminary studies have shown BPA and other chemicals involved in the manufacture of plastic products act as endocrine disrupters in the body, mimicking hormones.
For men, researchers found that can lead to lower sperm counts, smaller testicles and the development of feminine traits. In women, the consequences can include cancer.
The chemicals are also believed to play roles in obesity and attention deficit disorder in children.
“They’re reprogramming our genetic code,” Mason said of the chemicals.