Microbeads From Body Wash Products May Be Harming Great Lakes [REPORT]

By iScienceTimes Staff on June 27, 2013 11:55 AM EDT

dead fish
Microbeads found in body washes and facial scrubs are have ended up in the Great Lakes and other bodies of water, harming marine life. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Microbeads, those tiny exfoliating pieces of plastic in body washes and facial scrubs, are polluting lakes and oceans and killing fish, says a survey to be published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

The survey focused on plastic pollution specifically in the Great Lakes, with researchers finding that abrasive microbeads, which are too tiny for water treatment plant filters, slip though drains and end up in the Great Lakes.

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"The highest counts were in the micro plastic category, less than a millimeter in diameter," chemist and leader of the survey Sherri "Sam" Mason of the State University of New York at Fredonia told Scientific American. "Under the scanning electron microscope, many of the particles we found were perfectly spherical plastic balls."

The Great Lakes survey found 600,000 microbeads per square kilometer in two separate Lake Erie samples. The researchers didn't even know they were present in their samples at first, because they're so tiny and don't float on the surface like bigger plastic pollution like a water bottle does. But when they eventually realized the microbeads were present, it dawned on the researchers that, "Trillions and trillions and trillions of these beads are going into the water," according to Stiv Wilson of 5 Gyres, an environmental group that worked with Mason on the survey.

When the plastic microbeads ends up in bodies of water, marine life such as fish, turtles and birds think the plastic is food. Eating the microbeads deprives them of nutrients, because they only think they've eaten food, and the plastic can get stuck in their digestive systems.

"Microplastics have become a big concern in the world's oceans and estuaries," said Kirk Havens, a researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who is developing a replacement for plastic microbeads. "We already know that larger plastic items can harm organisms like turtles, seabirds, and fish by interfering with digestion or through strangulation; a concern with microplastics is that they're even more widely dispersed, and small enough to be eaten by a much more diverse group of organisms. Once ingested, these compounds and anything they've absorbed can be magnified up the food chain."

5 Gyres is lobbying cosmetics companies to discontinue using plastic microbeads in their products, and so far Body Shop, L'Oreal and Johnson & Johnson have agreed. In place of plastic microbeads, 5 Gyres wants companies to use organic exfoliating materials like pumice or walnut husks, which companies such as Burt's Bees use in their products.

"I think the companies know that once it gets out to consumers that they're washing their face with plastic, they're going to have a problem," Wilson said.

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