Do you use microbeads? Chances are, you do.

Monday, June 1, 2015
By: Kevin Chlad - Adirondack Council Legislative Director

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/images/microbeads penny.jpgThe next opportunity you have, walk to your bathroom and look at your personal care products. Do any of the products you use contain “microbeads?” Chances are, they do. Microbeads are plastic beads, 5mm or smaller in diameter, that are marketed to customers by offering exfoliating benefits when bathing, washing your face or brushing your teeth. At this time, there are over 100 products sold in the United States that contain microbeads. (The photo to the left shows microbeads on a penny.)

In personal care products, microbeads are typically manufactured using Polyethelyne, a common form of plastic that has quickly become one of the most significant sources of pollution on our globe. Polyethylene is known for its reluctance to biodegrade and ability to absorb persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which also do not biodegrade. Better known examples of POPs include Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), which have been linked to cancer and a variety of other adverse health effects.

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/images/beads down drain.pngWhat happens when you use a product containing microbeads? The beads go down your drain and either into your septic system or a municipal sewer line. If you use a septic system, the beads collect in your tank, inhibiting performance and requiring more frequent visits for emptying, which can get expensive. If you are connected to a municipal wastewater system, the beads make their way from your house into a wastewater treatment plant.

Unfortunately, microbeads are too small to be filtered out of the water in most wastewater treatment plants. Some treatment facilities have advanced filtration capabilities, but during combined sewer overflows, which can happen during times of heavy rain and snowmelt, raw sewage bypasses treatment and enters our waterways unchecked. Out of 610 wastewater treatment plants in New York, only one-third have advanced filtration, which means that roughly 400 are unable to filter out microbeads. While the cost to upgrade all plants lacking this capability would be staggering, it is estimated that 19 tons of microbead plastic enter our waterways each year in New York alone!

The majority of these plastic microbeads float and have a similar appearance to the invertebrates that fish and birds eat. Once these creatures ingest the microbeads, the POPs that the plastic absorbed slowly leach into their tissue, where they bioaccumulate. This means the amount toxins in fish and birds progressively increases because they are consumed at a higher rate than they are eliminated. This bioaccumulation continues up the food chain.

POPs and other toxins, such as mercury, have led to advisories telling anglers to avoid eating six species of fish in the Adirondacks alone. Birds may also find microbeads as they wash ashore.

Toxins that are absorbed by microbeads have been directly linked to reduced shell thicknesses and brood sizes in a number of signature bird species of the Adirondacks. Also, as animals spend their energy finding and ingesting these beads, they are not getting the calories or nutrients that they need to survive, meaning that microbeads dilute their food supply.

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/images/non microbead alternatives exist.jpgSo how can we solve this problem? Since there is not enough funding to upgrade all of the wastewater treatment facilities in the state and many homes are tied into septic systems: we must stop this pollution at the producer. The good news is Proctor and Gamble, Colgate and Johnson and Johnson have all voluntarily agreed to phase out the use of microbeads. These companies have all acknowledged that their products do not require the plastic pellets to be effective since there are already many natural alternatives that can be used that will not increase the price at the cash register.

And for those who won’t volunteer?

The Adirondack Council is supporting S.3932(O’Mara)/A.5896 (Schimel), bills in the NYS legislature that would ban the sale of any products containing microbeads in New York. The bill is designed to phase out these products from the marketplace by 2016, with a one-year extension for any FDA-approved products. While there are other versions of this legislation that attempt to address the problem of microbead pollution, this is the only version that presents a real solution.

Do your personal care products contain microbeads?
Products with microbeads
Products that will phase out microbeads
Products that do not contain microbeads

Want more information?
Read NYS Attorney General Eric Scheiderman's Microbead Report

Would you like to comment on what you've read or viewed? We'd love to hear from you. Please click to send us a message.

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/kevin-chlad.jpgKevin Chlad joined the Adirondack Council staff in 2011.

Kevin provides support to the Council’s Albany-based Legislative and Communications team, assisting with outreach to government officials and the media to help spread the word about the Council’s advocacy for the Adirondack Park and specific policies that will impact the Adirondacks.

Kevin Chlad graduated in 2008 with a degree in Environmental Studies of the Adirondacks from SUNY Potsdam. Besides his previous time spent at the Adirondack Council as a Clarence Petty Intern in 2009, Kevin has held numerous other Adirondack occupations, including Ausable River Steward, canoe guide, and fire tower summit steward (Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain). When not advocating ecological integrity, Kevin is an avid ice climber and adventurer.

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