In the News  Archive

NY Times Editorial: Microbeads, the Tiny Orbs Threatening Our Water

The New York Times Editorial
August 21, 2015

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD

Plastic is believed to be the main contaminant in the huge garbage gyres that pollute the oceans. Now researchers, led by Sherri Mason of the State University of New York at Fredonia, have found a stunning amount of plastic in the largest freshwater ecosystem on earth, the Great Lakes. And an increasing amount of it consists of the tiny plastic orbs used as abrasives in products like toothpaste and anti-acne lotions.

The particles are called microbeads, and consumers can avoid them by checking to see if plastic — maybe polyethylene or polypropylene — is on the product’s ingredient list. Once these virtually indestructible beads enter the water, they attract toxic substances, like PCBs. They become part of the aquatic food chain, soon eaten by fish and then, too often, by humans.

When Great Lakes fish are dissected, “they are festooned with microbeads,” said Henry Henderson, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Midwest office, in Chicago. Besides carrying toxins, the beads can cause internal abrasions and can stunt growth of the fish.

The studies done at Fredonia in 2012 and 2013 estimated that in Lakes Superior and Huron there were about 7,000 plastic particles per square kilometer. Lake Michigan had 17,000, Lake Erie had 46,000 and Lake Ontario had a whopping 248,000. Asked what amount of plastic pollution would be acceptable in the lakes, Dr. Mason said, “There shouldn’t be any plastic in our water, period.”

Microbeads are tricky, because most wastewater plants are not equipped to filter out such fine particles. Of the 610 wastewater plants in New York State, for example, more than 400 cannot do so, according to a report in 2014 by the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman. Nearly 19 tons of microbeads go down the drain in New York State every year, according to the report.

Wastewater plants could be retrofitted, but it would be costly. Some states have taken the more efficient approach of restricting the use of microbeads. Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey and Wisconsin have enacted bans, and California and a few others are considering them. New York’s Assembly approved a ban this year, but the Republican Senate has refused to go along.

Some major companies have stopped using microbeads or are phasing them out. The European Union is expected to consider prohibiting their use in cosmetics. Canada announced plans this summer to regulate microbeads and add them to its list of toxic substances.

Those bans could push companies to stop making products with microbeads, but the fastest solution is for consumers to simply stop using them.

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