We’re committed to using refillable water bottles. We carefully place paper and cardboard into recycling bins. Yet every day, when we routinely wash our faces and brush our teeth, are we mindlessly polluting the environment?
Toothpastes, skin moisturizers, facial scrubs, cleaning products — the effectiveness of many everyday products depends on tiny beads that enhance the feel of lotions, “remove” facial wrinkles, scrub away stains, or aid exfoliation. Ranging in size from 5 μm to 1 mm (6 of them might fit across the edge of a penny), the small beads are designed to quietly enhance our lives.
While you might notice bright dots of color in a hand cream, or feel the slight grit in toothpaste, the beads are designed to slip down drains when we wash our hands and spit after brushing our teeth. Once the signs of blueberries and coffee have been scrubbed away, and tiles are free from soap scum, the day’s accumulation of wrinkle cream, sunscreen, toothpaste, cleaning bubbles, and lotions heads down the drain. The synthetic plastic microbeads are designed to be whisked away, and travel easily through water pipes and into sewage treatment plants.
In the United States, an estimated 8 trillion microbeads per day enter water treatment plants. There, due to their size, an estimated 99% of these beads pass through filters and are either released into waterways or retained in treated sewage. Fabricated from polyethylene and polypropylene, microbeads don’t biodegrade, but persist in the environment for decades — in many instances, for more than 50 years. Not only do microbeads pollute the environment by adding to debris, the plastics also absorb toxic pollutants, making the beads more toxic than the surrounding water. Chemicals from water treatment facilities, and elements contained in runoff from agricultural fields and manufacturing plants, often comprise Priority Pollutants under the EPA’s Clean Water Act — persistent organic pollutants, pesticides, flame retardants, and PCBs that soak into the plastic particles.
Phytoplankton and zooplankton, at the base of the food chain, confuse microbeads with fish eggs and consume the plastic, which then travels to fish, marine mammals, turtles, seabirds and other wildlife — and eventually humans. Plastics carrying substances that have been demonstrated to cause cellular necrosis, inflammation and lacerations of the digestive tract, liver toxicity, and disruptions to the endocrine system have been found in the bellies of marine wildlife. Microbeads are found in every ocean in the world, in numerous interior waterways, and along coasts. An October 2015 study looked at abiotic sea products, finding microbeads in salt, with sea salt contaminated by as much as 615 particles per kilogram.
Alarmed by this pollution, 20 states have banned, or are in the process of banning, personal care products containing microbeads. In November 2015, Tompkins County, New York, banned products with microbeads from sale, providing retailers a six-month transitional period to clear their inventory. On a national level, in March 2015, Congressmen Frank Pallone Jr. (of New Jersey) and Fred Upton (of Michigan) introduced a bill entitled “Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015,” which would institute a nationwide ban beginning on January 1, 2018.
Certain companies, including Unilever, L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson, have stopped the inclusion of microbeads in their products, or are aggressively phasing out their use. Other firms have developed biodegradable microbeads, although environmental activists have raised concern about their degradation in the marine environments to which they’re introduced.
At the other end of the spectrum, hundreds of other products, such as Crest brand toothpaste, Neutrogena facial products, and Aveeno lotions, contain synthetic plastic microbeads. Consumers seeking to avoid products with microbeads can check labels for the indicators polyethylene and polypropylene. The free “Beat the Microbead” app, available from Google and Apple, helps consumers check if a product contains microbeads by scanning the barcode with a smartphone camera; this app is helpful for travelers, as it has information on products sold in dozens of different countries.
By removing microbeads from our stock of personal care products, we can all keep ourselves beautiful and clean while arresting inadvertent water pollution.