3:21am

Wed May 21, 2014
Environment

Why Those Tiny Microbeads In Soap May Pose Problem For Great Lakes

Originally published on Wed May 21, 2014 3:19 pm

From the shoreline at North Avenue Beach in Chicago, the blue water of Lake Michigan stretches as far as the eye can see. But beneath that pristine image, there's a barely visible threat, says Jennifer Caddick of the Alliance for the Great Lakes: microbeads.

These tiny bits of plastic, small scrubbing components used in hundreds of personal care products like skin exfoliants and soap, can slip through most water treatment systems when they wash down the drain.

Environmentalists say they're a part of the plastic pollution found in the ocean, and, increasingly, in the Great Lakes, which contain more than 20 percent of the world's freshwater. Now, Illinois and New York state lawmakers are a step closer to banning them.

Microbeads, says Caddick, engagement director for the Alliance, are "a bigger problem than we initially had thought."

Plastics That Look Like Food

Sherri Mason, an associate professor of chemistry at the State University of New York, Fredonia, sailed with a research team over the past couple of years to collect data on the prevalence of plastics in the lakes. They dragged a fine mesh net in the waters at half-hour intervals to snag what they could — "anything that's bigger than a third of a millimeter," Mason says.

When the boat docked at Chicago's Navy Pier last summer, Mason showed off the sample bottles of microbeads that she and her team had collected in Lake Michigan.

Mason says her testing found, on average, 17,000 bits of tiny plastic items per square kilometer in Lake Michigan. The levels were much lower in Lake Huron and Lake Superior, but Lake Erie and Lake Ontario had much higher concentrations.

Lake Ontario's levels are highest, with counts of up to 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometer. While microbeads in facial cleansers and body washes may be pretty good for removing dead skin cells, Mason says, there's a rub.

"They are about the same size as fish eggs, which means that, essentially, they look like food. To any organism that lives in the water, they are food," Mason says. "So our concern is that, essentially, they are making their way into the food web."

And if fish eat microbeads, which can soak up toxins like a sponge, scientists suggest that those chemicals could be passed on to humans and wildlife.

So, after collaborating with groups like 5 Gyres that fight against plastic pollution in waterways, state lawmakers in Illinois and New York are among the first to approve legislation banning microbeads. The Illinois bill has passed that state's Senate, and in New York, the legislation has passed the House.

"Obviously, protecting the lake is hugely fundamental, not just to my district, but to the whole system here in Chicago," says Illinois state Sen. Heather Steans, who represents a district along Chicago's lakefront and supports the measure.

"We've got an agreed-to bill now that will, in fact, ban the manufacture of these by 2017, and [ban] the distribution of them in the state by 2018," Steans says.

In New York, if pending legislation is signed into law, manufacturers will have until December of 2015 to phase out products with microbeads.

Industry Exploring Alternatives

Until the Illinois ban is fully approved, Steans says, consumers should look at labels. "If they have polyethylene or polypropylene on the labels, that indicates there's plastic in them," she says. "Sometimes, right on the front of the labels it will say, "Microbeads."

While environmental groups and lawmakers are behind the measures, so are some companies in the personal care industry. Karin Ross, a spokeswoman for the Personal Care Products Council, says L'Oreal, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have already announced that they are phasing out the use of microbeads and are testing alternatives like sand and apricot seeds.

"We worked on this bill extensively," she says of the Illinois legislation. "We think it's a positive first step."

Even so, Jared Teutsch, water policy advocate with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says he had hoped for a quicker ban. "There's still urgency there, and we'd like to see companies move faster than [those deadlines], and we hope they will," he says.

In addition to the legislation pending in Illinois and New York, there are bills targeting microbeads in Minnesota, Ohio and California.

Researcher Mason says that banning microbeads in consumer products is an important first step, but there are many more plastic products that end up in waterways and there's a long way to go to get rid of them.

In the meantime, Mason suggests that people with facial scrubs containing little plastic beads in their medicine cabinets try one with a different abrasive, like cocoa beans.

"I'd much rather wash my face with chocolate than with plastic," she says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we'll report on products that pollute the ocean, even though they clean your skin. Exfoliants contain an ingredient that end up in the water. Those hygiene products include tiny bits of plastic called microbeads. New York is moving to ban microbeads for the sake of the Atlantic. Illinois is moving to ban them to protect the Great Lakes.

We find NPR's Cheryl Corley at the edge of one.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: I'm standing at the shoreline of North Avenue Beach, one of the many beaches in Chicago that line up along Lake Michigan. It's sunny, windy and the water looks gorgeous.

JENNIFER CADDICK: Sort of a blue-emerald colored water stretching as far as the eye can see and really sort of shows the majesty and the hugeness of the Great Lakes.

CORLEY: Jennifer Caddick, with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says beneath that pristine image though, is a nearly invisible threat for the Lakes that contain more than 20 percent of the world's fresh water.

CADDICK: And it was a bigger problem than we initially had thought.

CORLEY: Because tiny bits of plastic are showing up in the Great Lakes. Dr. Sheri Mason, an associate chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia sailed with a research team over the last couple of years to collect data. They dragged a fine mesh net in the waters at half hour intervals to snag what they could.

DR. SHERI MASON: We catch anything that's bigger than a third of a millimeter.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAVY PIER MUSIC)

CORLEY: When the boat docked at Chicago's noisy Navy Pier last summer, Mason showed off the sample bottles of microbeads she and her team collected in Lake Michigan.

That's very tiny.

MASON: That is very tiny.

CORLEY: Yeah.

MASON: Yeah. And that's the stuff we pick up, so it's really, really small.

CORLEY: Mason says her testing found on average17,000 bits of tiny plastic items per square kilometer in Lake Michigan. It was much lower in Lakes Huron and Superior, but Lakes Erie and Ontario had much higher concentrations. Lake Ontario at the top with counts up to one point one million plastic particles per square kilometer. Mason says while microbeads in facial cleansers and body washes may be pretty good for removing dead skin cells, here's the rub.

MASON: They are about the same size as fish eggs, which means that, essentially, they look like food. To any organism that lives in the water, they are food. And so our concern is that, essentially, they are making their way into the food web.

CORLEY: And if fish eat microbeads which can soak up toxins like a sponge, scientists suggest those chemicals could be passed on to humans and wildlife. So after collaborating with groups like 5 Gyres - that fight against plastic pollution in waterways, state lawmakers in Illinois and New York are among the first to approve legislation that bans microbeads.

Illinois State Senator Heather Steans represents a district along Chicago's lakefront.

STATE SENATOR HEATHER STEANS: Obviously, protecting the lake is hugely fundamental, not just to my district, but to the whole system of Chicago. We've got an agreed to bill now that will ban the manufacture of these by 2017 and the distribution of them in the state by 2018.

CORLEY: And in New York, manufacturers would have until December of next year to phase out products with microbeads. Senator Steans says until the Illinois ban is fully approved, consumers should just look at labels.

STEANS: If they have polyethylene or polypropylene on the labels, that indicates there's plastic in them. Sometimes on the front of the labels it will say microbeads as well.

CORLEY: While environmental groups and lawmakers are behind the measure, so are some companies in the personal care industry.

KAREN ROSS: We worked on this bill extensively, we think it's a positive first step.

CORLEY: Karin Ross, a spokesperson for the Personal Care Products Council, says L'Oreal, Johnson and Johnson and Proctor and Gamble have already announced they're phasing out the use of microbeads and are testing alternatives like sand and apricot seeds. Even so, Jared Teutsch with the Alliance for the Great Lakes says he had hoped for a quicker ban.

JARED TEUTSCH: There's still urgency there and we'd like to see companies move faster than that deadline and we hope they will.

CORLEY: In addition to the pending legislation in Illinois and New York, there are bills targeting microbeads in Minnesota, Ohio and California too. In the meantime, researcher, Dr. Mason, says people who have facial scrubs with little plastic beads in their medicine cabinets should try one with a different abrasive like cocoa beans.

MASON: I'd much rather wash my face with chocolate than with plastic.

CORLEY: Mason says banning microbeads in consumer products is an important first step but there are many more plastic products that end up in waterways and there's a long way to go to get rid of them.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

INSKEEP: And you hear Cheryl right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.