From hand soaps to facial cleansers, shoppers can find a variety of personal care products armed with tiny exfoliating microbeads in department stores nowadays.
These little beads, however, don’t simply disappear from existence once they’ve circled the shower drain. According to researchers, they aren’t so easily filtered through wastewater treatment plants on Great Lake shores, and they end up going straight into the water, causing contamination and affecting wildlife.
While microbead pollution has been studied in oceans for more than a decade, research groups have only recently begun analyzing the Great Lakes. What they found was a problem equally as alarming.
The micro-plastics research on the Great Lakes has been the brainchild of Sherri “Sam” Mason, environmental sciences program coordinator at SUNY Fredonia, who was the first to initiate a study of micro-plastics in the Great Lakes. Ms. Mason conducted her first study in 2012 with 5 Gyers, a Los Angeles research group that typically studies ocean pollution.
Ms. Mason said the studies are conducted year-round; samples are collected from the lakes in the summer and are analyzed in colder seasons. She and her team spend weeks out on the lakes collecting samples using a mesh net designed to pick up objects as small as 333 microns, or a third of a millimeter. The net is towed by a boat along the surface of the water.
The analysis of the samples, Ms. Mason said, is where the process gets tedious.
First, the plastic pieces must be carefully sorted out from other objects and organisms, such as plankton, wood chips and leaves. Once the sorting is complete, the plastic pieces have to be counted, and Ms. Mason will spend hours with her eyes glued to a microscope to do it.
The objects are then analyzed to verify that they are indeed plastic. The two most common types of plastic in these objects, Ms. Mason said, are polyethylene and polypropylene. These compounds are harmful to organisms when ingested, and because these plastic pieces are so small, they can be easily eaten by fish.
Plastic ingested by fish is not immediately lethal, but it can have long-term side effects, Ms. Mason said. It can affect a fish’s metabolism and reproduction, among other problems. But these effects are not limited to aquatic life. The chemicals can work their way up the food chain, eventually affecting humans. While effects to the human body also are not immediately observed, Ms. Mason said the chemicals can contribute to a wide range of health problems down the road, including cancer.
And not all of the plastic is found floating on the surface. Ms. Mason said much of it can sink to the lake bed, making it tougher to eliminate but easier to be eaten by fish and other organisms. Other chemicals present in the lake can also stick to the plastic beads, essentially turning them into magnets for toxins.
Complicating study of the plastic matter is that it’s not easily seen to the naked eye.
“As you’re looking at the water, you should be aware that there are thousands of pieces of plastic going past you,” Ms. Mason said. “It’s really small, and it’s hidden.”
Since 2012, Ms. Mason and her team have conducted studies in all five Great Lakes. Of the five, she said, Lake Ontario has it the worst. Because Lake Ontario is the last in the five-lake chain, Ms. Mason said, it sees the worst microplastic pollution; much of the plastic that gets into any of the Great Lakes eventually flows into Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. On top of that, metropolitan areas along Lake Ontario add their own plastic discharges to the mix. Ms. Mason said her research on the St. Lawrence Seaway has yet to touch the waters around Montreal. She anticipates the problem will only worsen in that area.
Helen M. Domske, New York Sea Grant extension associate and University at Buffalo’s Great Lakes program associate director, said companies color the microbeads in their personal care products green and red to sync with the holiday season.
These beads or plastic pieces can be found in toothpaste as well. Mrs. Domske said these flakes not only get lodged in the teeth of the user, they slide right through lake water treatment filters to be easily consumed by organisms.
Groups like Sea Grant have boosted their education on micro-plastic pollution in recent years. Ms. Domske said she and other members often speak to students and the public on how they can take action, which is to simply stop purchasing microbead products altogether.
“It’s a quick fix,” she said. “I think people, once they learn that wastewater plants don’t pick (microbeads) up, are amazed.”
Save the River, a St. Lawrence River advocacy group in Clayton, has also gotten on board. Assistant Director Stephanie Weiss said informing others about the issue has become a top priority for Save the River, which has sent out action alerts to residents to discuss the issue with local representatives.
In areas without bans, Ms. Mason said, consumers should not only stop purchasing microbead products and be mindful to what plastic material they are throwing away.
“There’s a solution to this,” Ms. Mason said. “Basically all of the plastic we find comes from us. It means we are the problem, but we are also the solution. If we can get people to rethink their relationship with plastic and refuse plastic where they can, that will dramatically affect what we find in the water. It’s not all gloom and doom.”
A smartphone app to combat the problem, called “Beat the Microbead,” was launched internationally in 2013 by the North Sea Foundation and the Plastic Soup Foundation. Available in most app stores, it allows users to scan product barcodes to detect the presence of microbeads or other plastics. More information about the app can be found at http://www.beatthemicrobead.org/.
The state Senate and Assembly have tried to pass a bill that would ban the production and sale of microbead products throughout the state, titled the “Microbead-Free Waters Act.” The act states that state water treatment plants are not equipped to filter out the plastic materials, which are being found in New York’s Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes and the Mohawk River.
“Consumers using personal cosmetics that contain microbeads, like shampoos, soaps and toothpastes, are washing away what most believe are harmless consumer waste,” the bill reads. “Unfortunately, many of our wastewater treatment plants are unable, absent costly upgrades, to filter out these tiny plastics.”
A 2014 wastewater treatment plant study commissioned by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman revealed that 25 of 34 treatment sites were releasing microbeads into freshwater sources.
The Assembly has passed the bill, but it has yet to make it through the State Senate. The bill is co-sponsored by 36 senators, though it does not have a scheduled date to appear on the Senate floor, according to the Senate website.
State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, is a co-sponsor of the bill, which she said she hopes will make more progress during the 2016 legislative session.
So far, seven states have banned microbead-infused products: California Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland and New Jersey.
On the federal level, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., reintroduced legislation in July to initiate a nationwide ban by 2018.
Though the New York state legislature has some distance to go before the ban becomes a law, county governments are already stepping up.
Erie County became the first U.S. county to ban the sale and production of microbead-laden cosmetic products when its Board of Legislators passed its law in July. Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Suffolk and Albany counties have also imposed bans.
Jefferson County made a stand in November with a Board of Legislators resolution to support any law that would ban products with microbeads or plastic.
Philip N. Reed, Board of Legislators General Services chairman, said the county does not have the resources to enforce its own ban across the county, but the resolution is a step forward.
“We make as much noise as we can to protect our environment,” Mr. Reed said. “While you can’t see (microbeads), you can’t turn a blind eye to it.”
The When And Why Of Microbeads
Though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when microbeads began popping up in personal care products, SUNY Fredonia Environmental Sciences Program Coordinator Sherri “Sam” Mason said microbeads were patented in the early 1970s.
However, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the beads were included in the products.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, microbeads and other plastics can serve a variety of purposes. They are most commonly found in personal care products. In facial creams and toothpastes, the abrasiveness of microbeads helps scrub and exfoliate skin. They can also be used for research purposes such as fluid flow visualization and microscopy.