Microbeads In Cosmetics End Up In the Great Lakes

Reader Contribution by Kathy Knauer
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Exfoliating scrubs promise to wash away dead cells, leaving younger, more vibrant looking skin.  But there’s a catch — the ingredient that many cosmetic companies use, tiny plastic beads, are a part of the microplastics that researchers find in the oceans and now, a new study reveals, in the Great Lakes.

A research group, 5Gyres, teamed up with Sherri Mason, a researcher at State University of New York at Fredonia in one of the first studies of microplastics in freshwater. And the news isn’t good.  Microplastics were found in the Great Lakes in large concentrations. As The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple reported:

“About 60% of the microplastics we found were these perfectly round, spherical balls.  And those definitely don’t come from the degradation of larger plastic items,” said Mason.

Microbeads, the tiny plastic beads in cosmetics, end up in the Great Lakes through the municipal

sewersystem, after being rinsed down the drain. Mason says the little beads could be creating big problems for wildlife.

“They essentially look like fish eggs. They look like food. The biggest concern is the possible ingestion of these microplastics by aquatic organisms,” Mason said.

Studies have shown tiny bits of plastics in oceans are being eaten by fish and birds.  Even mussels and plankton at the bottom of the food chain ingest them. Wildlife can fill up on the plastics, preventing them from digesting real food. 

Microplastics can pose a risk to human health, too. Mason said the Great Lakes were once a dumping ground, and even though pollution is more regulated now, some chemicals are persistent. Plastics found during Mason’s study had elevated levels of industrial chemicals like PCBs.

Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis with Women for a Healthy Environment explained that dangerous chemicals can essentially bind to plastics, the fish eat these toxic-coated plastics and then we eat the fish.

“So we know that it works up the food chain and as a result will impact human health,” she said.

Groups are pressuring companies and governments to ban microplastics.  Recently, a coalition of Great Lakes mayors asked the U.S. EPA and its Canadian equivalent to regulate microplastics.  Other groups have petitioned cosmetics companies to stop using microbeads in their products, and a few companies, such as Unilever and Johnson & Johnson (they own Neutrogena, which uses micro-beads in some products), say they will phase out the ingredient.

The Environmental Working Group has a database of 79,000 personal care products, called Skin Deep, where you can find alternatives to microbeads, such as natural scrubs, or search for your favorite product.Ecowatch has natural recipes for making your own scrubs.

Source: Kara Holsopple, The Allegheny Front: “Microplastics a Problem in the Great Lakes” November 8, 2013

Photo by 5Gyres: The majority of the plastic that Mason and her team found were tiny pieces called microplastics.

Kathy Knauer is the executive producer of The Allegheny Front, an independent public radio program and online source of environmental news.

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