Every day the rinse- off from body and facial scrubs, hand soaps, shower gels, toothpastes, nail polish, makeup, sunscreens, and many other beauty products are innocently washed down drains throughout the world. However, did you know that you are washing with plastics and that hundreds of thousands of microscopic pieces of plastic get rinsed off as well? These tiny pieces, defined by the cosmetics industry as “synthetic non-biodegradable solid plastic particles” and less than 5mm in size, give the products their abrasive, exfoliant properties used, for example, to remove dead skin.
However, more than supposedly adding health benefits to the consumer, evidence shows that these “microbeads”, “micro-exfoliates” and “scrubbers” as they are more commonly known as, are accumulating in oceans, lakes, and along coastlines. A study by I.E. Napper et al. and published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin estimates that between 4600 and 94,500 microbeads could be released in a single use. Multiply this by millions of daily consumers worldwide, and the scale of problem becomes clear. Additionally, the microbeads become part of the already alarming amount of “microplastic”— any plastic debris smaller than 1mm— prevalent in the plastic debris circulating in our ocean’s five major gyres. Gyres are naturally rotating ocean currents created by the Earth’s rotation forces and wind patterns which sweep up ocean litter broken down by sunlight, waves, or weathering. The biggest gyre of marine debris is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The Bad News:
Microbeads are designed to be rinsed off and washed down the drain, but due to their minute size, wastewater treatment plants cannot filter them. Thus, once the microbeads reach a waterway, such as a river, it is inevitable that they will reach coasts, oceans, and lakes where they take up long-term residence. Additionally, the beads may remain in sewage sludge to be used as soil fertiliser. A 2013 study by Eriksen, M., et al. revealed that the Great Lakes in the USA held an average of over 43,000 microplastic particles per square kilometre; one sample taken near to a major city contained over 466,000 particles per square kilometre.
Like almost all marine plastic debris, microbeads are typically composed of polyethylene and polypropylene, giving the particles its buoyancy and allowing the pieces to float at the surface. Although, according to a report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only about a half of all plastic is positively buoyant, if the plastic particles become fouled, its density increases and it will become suspended in water columns or sink and settle on the floors of seas, oceans and lakes. Furthermore, reports the EPA, plastic debris attract harmful pollutants, such as PBTs (Persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals), which instead of dissolving in water, adsorb to the surface of the plastic debris. The 5 Gyres Institute reports that “a single plastic microbead can be 1 million times more toxic than the water around it”.
Studies show that once attached to a plastic particle, the dangerous toxins have the potential to enter the food chain when consumed by lower level organisms and then indirectly ingested by predators higher up on the food web. For example, seals or seabirds may ingest smaller fish who may have eaten zooplankton who mistook tiny microplastic for food. Once consumed, the microplastic can cause internal and external injury, block the animal’s digestive system and slow down its feeding capability, and reduce mobility. In the case of seabirds, the microplastic affects their body weight by preventing fat deposition and its reproductive capability. Studies performed by renowned ecologist Dr. Mark Browne have shown that microplastics were able to enter a mussel’s circulatory and immune system where it remained for more than 48 days, resulting in an inflammatory response.
Furthermore, Dr. Browne discovered that chemicals from ingested plastic affected lugworms’ basic capabilities of feeding and processing sediment. Lugworms inhabit marine sediments and are fundamental to the functioning of complex food webs.
Further evidence of how microplastic is affecting aquatic wildlife was revealed in a study carried out by marine ecologist Dr. Chelsea Rochman. In the experiment, she exposed Japanese medaka fish with contaminated plastic particles that had been pre-soaked in the San Diego Bay, California. After two months, PBTs were found in the flesh of the fish, with signs of liver stress and changes in the genes related to reproduction.
Although the mechanisms of how microplastics affect humans are poorly understood, a ecotoxicologist Heather Leslie of VU University Amsterdam states that research has shown that nano-size plastic particles can cause damage to the lungs and gut when minuscule particles cross cell membranes, the blood-brain barrier, and placenta and are taken up by the gastrointestinal tract causing inflammation and potential harm. Moreover, toxic plastic debris can contaminate drinking water, increasing the risk of human exposure to bacteria and infection.
The Good News:
In December 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act stating that as of 1st July 2017, companies will be banned from using microbeads in their products, and from 1st July 2018, the sale of such products will be prohibited across the USA.
According to The International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics, 337 brands from 67 different manufacturers will remove plastic microbeads from their products.
What you can do:
Rather then wait for the phase out of microbeads, avoid buying products made from them. Begin by checking the label to look out for the main ingredients of microbeads: polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, polylactic acid, or nylon.
Additionally, The International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics compiled a list of products that contain microbeads.
With our oceans carrying over 5 trillion pieces pf plastic and weighing over 250,000 tons, every conscious action for positive change makes a difference.