Microbeads, found in more than a hundred consumer products, are an insidious threat to the environment, wildlife and ultimately humans.
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has sent a bill to the Legislature aimed at eliminating these plastic bits from products.
The Microbead-Free Waters Act would ban the distribution, sale or manufacture in New York of beauty and other personal care products that contain plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size. It was passed earlier this month by the Assembly. State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, is sponsoring the legislation in the Senate as chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee.
Most people are unaware of microbeads, which are found in facial scrubs, soaps, shampoo and toothpaste, where they replaced ground walnut shells, sea salt and other natural materials as an abrasive. Unlike those materials, the beads are not biodegradable. That means they remain in the environment, where they accumulate toxic chemicals on their surfaces.
A single tube of face wash can contain more than 350,000 of the beads, according to the environmental organization 5 Gyres Institute.
As the chain of life in the ecosystem dictates, the beads become a threat to fish and other wildlife and finally humans. The damage is done after products containing microbeads are used in the home, and then rinsed down the drain and through the sewer systems. The tiny particles are buoyant and pass through filtering systems to be discharged into rivers, lakes and oceans. They collect various chemicals and then circle back to humans when small fish and other wildlife mistake these microbeads for food.
Microbeads themselves are a health concern because they contain a chemical called a plasticizer, which is added to provide more flexibility and stretchability.
Fredonia State College professor Sherri Mason’s studies have shown that plastics are present in all five Great Lakes. Lakes Erie and Ontario have the highest concentration. Besides the health concerns, the microbeads also carry an economic cost, with the potential to undermine the billions of dollars of public and private investment in our water-based economies while negatively impacting the progress of Great Lakes restoration.
Consumers trying to avoid microbeads can check the product ingredient list and steer clear of those containing polyethylene or polypropylene. Some manufacturers have gotten the message. Procter & 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.
The threat is real, and the Legislature should follow the lead of these manufacturers and ban microbeads.