In the News  Archive

Microbeads entering Lake Placid wastewater

April 23, 2015
Lake Placid News

By Shaun Kittle

LAKE PLACID - They're found in body wash, facial scrub and toothpaste, and they don't disappear after they're washed down the drain.

Tiny plastic granules called microbeads are added to products as a scrubbing agent, but they're also showing up in waterways - and fishes' bellies - around the nation. Now they've been found in Lake Placid's wastewater, one of the few sites that's tested for them.

New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is among politicians who want microbeads banned. His office released a report detailing the effects of microbeads in waterways, and that report was followed up by a study that included testing effluent samples from 34 private and municipal wastewater treatment facilities across the state. Microbeads were found in 25 of those, including the Lake Placid wastewater treatment plant.

Stuart Baird, senior operator of the Lake Placid facility, said he decided to participate in the study because he was curious about whether plastic beads were being released into Adirondack waterways. He collected samples of wastewater that had passed through all but the last step of the treatment process, the one where ultraviolet light is used to kill bacteria, and sent it in for testing.

Baird soon learned why the beads can evade filtration methods. They tend to float, so the enormous skimmers used to remove solid waste from the water often miss them.

"They would go to the top of any tanks in the treatment plant," Baird said. "We have skimmers in some of our tanks that would help reduce them, but we don't particularly have a way to get them out."

The problem with beads

Adirondack Council Communications Director John Sheehan said the organization opposes the use of microbeads in products.

"It's troubling because plastics, while they break down slowly, do break down over time and can have an impact on the organisms that live in the water," Sheehan said. "They're made of various chemical compounds and petroleum products, and generally do not break down to inert things in the environment."

Microbeads are tiny, usually less than half a millimeter in diameter, so they can't be filtered out by most septic systems and sewage treatment systems.

Sheehan said people testing silt in Adirondack waterways, particularly those with homes along them, are finding microbeads in the top layers of sediment there.

According to the attorney general's 2014 report, microbeads can persist for decades and will accumulate toxic chemical pollutants on their surface in that time.

The report says they can be mistaken for food by small aquatic organisms and essentially serve as a pathway for pollutants to enter the food chain and contaminate fish and wildlife.

The report states, "High counts of spherical microbeads were initially found in the New York open waters of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in 2012 and 2013. They have subsequently been found in the open waters of Cayuga Lake, Oneida Lake, Erie Canal, and Mohawk River and St. Lawrence River sediments."

Sheehan said consumers who want to avoid microbeads need to be careful when selecting products that might contain them.
"Microbeads are frequently not mentioned in the label. It's the kind of thing where the consumer really has to ask some questions and do some research on the products that they're using at the moment."

Ban the beads

This is not the first time products containing microbeads have come under fire. Illinois banned them in 2014, and New Jersey did so this March. Schneiderman proposed a bill to do the same in New York, but it never made it to the floor of the Republican-controlled Senate after the Democrat-controlled Assembly cleared it with 131 yeas and zero nays.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is also pursuing a federal ban on the tiny synthetic balls and has expressed support for Schneiderman's efforts.

In an email to the Enterprise, Adirondack Council Legislative Director Kevin Chlad said his organization supports Schneiderman's bill, the Microbead-Free Waters Act, because it would ban the use of all plastic microbeads, including those deemed biodegradable, starting in 2016. Products requiring FDA approval would be banned in 2017.

Chlad explained that studies have shown "biodegradable plastics" can persist as long as traditional plastics, and they tend not to biodegrade into benign substances. Instead, they break down into smaller pieces that exacerbate the plastic pollution problem.

"It is particularly difficult for a plastic to biodegrade in an aquatic environment, since the process would require high heat and light, which do not exist in an aquatic environment," Chlad wrote.

Another proposed microbead bill isn't as inclusive regarding what is banned, and the Council doesn't support it. It would allow for the use of so-called biodegradable plastics, and the timeline for implementing it is lengthy - 2019 for personal care products and 2020 for over-the-counter drugs, which can also contain the beads.


Plastic beads aren't the only scrubbing agents on store shelves. Rachel Frey, manager and buyer of health and beauty products for Green Goddess health food store in Lake Placid, said there are plenty of alternatives.

Frey said the easiest way to avoid microbeads is to simply read the ingredients.

"Salt and sugar are the most natural and common scrubbing agents," Frey said. "Oat kernel flour, tapioca starch, lava clay are others. Basically, anything that can be crushed down to almost a flour, but with more texture, can be used to exfoliate."

Another alternative is diatomaceous earth, a substance made from the crushed shells or cell walls of microscopic, single-celled algae.

"It's a really nice, fine sand, and there are actually many different grades of it," Frey said. "People use it not only for exfoliation, but you can use it in products like de-wormer for dogs. Food grade diatomaceous earth also gives us cleansing ability for our bodies, so it has a wide variety of uses."

Frey said exfoliation doesn't necessarily have to be a physical process. Hyaluronic acid and fruit enzymes, like those from papaya and pineapple, helps peel dead skin away without scrubbing.

"The salt and the sugar is going to be a little more irritating because it's not fine enough," Frey said. "The diatomaceous earth is finer, so it's good for any skin type."

The most striking thing about the list of ingredients on natural beauty products is they're all identifiable. Besides the scrubbing agents, Frey listed off moisturizers like aloe butter, raw wildflower honey and aloe gel.

One brand even has a motto that says, "If you can't eat it, why would you put it in your skin?"

"This stuff is natural, so it's not going to pollute the waterways," Frey said

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