By David Mickey
“Please pass the plastic.”
No one intentionally sprinkles plastic on his or her dinner. Most people prefer natural foods without any additives. But unseen pollution from personal care products is finding its way downstream to the saltwater environment that produces the seafood on your plate.
Plastic “microbeads” are very small spherical abrasives added to a variety of popular consumer products from toothpaste to facial cleansers and cosmetics. Aveeno, Clinique, Olay and Crest to name just a few. The plastics–polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene–are petroleum products substituted by manufacturers for natural alternatives like oatmeal, pumice and ground almonds. Synthetic fibers from clothing, such as fleece, add another waste stream to the plastic mix.
Washed down the drain, these tiny products easily pass through septic systems and waste water treatment plants, and are discharged to rivers and streams across the country. Here the beads act like tiny sponges attracting DDT and other toxins. First consumed by smaller organisms like plankton, microbeads work their way up the food chain. Scientists have found microbeads in everything from shellfish to marine mammals and seabirds.
A 2015 UK study analyzed the contents of six facial scrubs commonly found on supermarket shelves in that country. The researchers estimated that up to 94,500 micro beads could go down the drain with each use. Additional studies confirmed the absorption of toxic pollution by plastic micro beads in the environment.
Several states have tried to limit microbead pollution by banning their use in personal care products and over-the-counter drugs. Last year in the North Carolina General Assembly, Rep. Pricey Harrison, (D-Guilford) introduced House Bill 629 to “Prohibit Microbeads in OTC Drugs & Products.” This bill would have banned the sale of personal care products containing microbeads after Dec.1, 2018, and over-the-counter drugs Dec. 1, 2019. The General Assembly took no action on the legislation.
This was not the case in the U. S. Congress. In a rare case of bi-partisan legislative action, Congress passed the “Microbead-Free Waters Act” and on Dec. 28, President Obama signed it into law. Microbeads will be banned in “rinse-off cosmetics” as of July 1, 2018, and in non-prescription drugs on July 1, 2019. Although the bill is not a complete ban for all products, it is an unexpected first step.
Manufacturers, such as Johnson & Johnson, are already moving away from the plastic abrasives for U. S. markets. In time, that means less pollution and cleaner water.
Globally the issue still remains. Until the plastic bead is banned and eliminated everywhere, consumers should always check the label and avoid those tiny plastic beads.