Microbeads are most commonly used in a variety of personal care products, from toothpaste to exfoliators in washes and scrubs, but a growing body of evidence is pointing to the fact that the tiny non-biodegradable beads are leadings to mounting environmental problems in marine environments.
The mounting deposits in waterways, lakes and oceans are throwing up more and more examples of threats to aquatic life, but because personal care products formulated with such beads are designed to be flushed down the drain, cosmetic manufacturers are rightfully bearing the brunt of the blame.
Research involved a team from seven different institutions
The research from a team all over the US but reporting to the Oregon State University was published in the most recent edition of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, and involved the input of researchers and scientists from seven different institutions.
"We're facing a plastic crisis and don't even know it," said Stephanie Green, the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and co-author of the report.
"Part of this problem can now start with brushing your teeth in the morning," she said. "Contaminants like these microbeads are not something our wastewater treatment plants were built to handle, and the overall amount of contamination is huge. The microbeads are very durable."
8 trillion microbeads reaching waterways daily
The study estimates that 8 trillion microbeads are being emitted into aquatic habitats in the United States alone on a daily basis, which the team estimates is enough to cover around 300 tennis courts – estimates that the team said were on the conservative side.
But this estimated 8 trillion microbeads accounts for just 1% of the total 800 trillion microbeads that are actually filtered out by water management systems every day in the US. However, of equal concerns is the fact that a lot of these microbeads end up as sludge from sewage plants, which is eventually spread over agricultural land as fertilizer.
It is often the residue that drains off the land that then carries the intact microbeads directly into waterways and ultimately oceans that can cause the most problems, the report points out.
Part of a bigger problem
"Microbeads are just one of many types of microplastic found in aquatic habitats and in the gut content of wildlife," said Chelsea Rochman, the David H. Smith Conservation Research Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California/Davis, and lead author on the analysis.
"We've demonstrated in previous studies that microplastic of the same type, size and shape as many microbeads can transfer contaminants to animals and cause toxic effects," Rochman said. "We argue that the scientific evidence regarding microplastic supports legislation calling for a removal of plastic microbeads from personal care products."
However, despite the concerns, the team also points out that the problem is very controllable, especially since awareness of the problem has led to the development of biodegradable alternatives to plastic microbeads that are increasingly being taken up by the personal care industry.
Likewise, law enforcers are also responding to the problem, both on a state and federal level, with an increasing number of moves being made to ban the inclusion of microbeads in personal care products within the next two to three years.
A US federal ban by 2018?
Representatives Fred Upton (R-Mich) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) introduced federal legislation to ban plastic microbeads from personal care, taking a similar stand to the legislations that have already been passed at a state level.
As the bill gathers momentum in the Washington D.C. legislative process, mounting awareness of the environmental harm microbeads cause, which has resulted from concerted campaigns behind the state legislations, is likely to offer a smoother passage to this federal legislation.
If passed, the federal bill would ban the sale or distribution of cosmetics products containing plastic microbeads throughout the US, effective January 1st, 2018.