Plastic bags don’t have monopoly on endangering the ocean

Trina Bartkowicz brushes her teeth with toothpaste that does not contain microbeads.
Trina Bartkowicz brushes her teeth with toothpaste that does not contain microbeads.

Plastic trash is bad for the oceans, the critters that live in them and for humans when they eat the critters that ate the plastic the humans dumped into the ocean.

The news and social media are filled with stories about the plastic garbage patch floating in the Pacific Ocean and the harm to sea turtles, dolphins and fish when they get tangled in or eat plastics.

Now comes a new culprit, the smallest villain of them all, plastic microbeads used in toothpaste and a host of skin care products scrubs, soaps, makeup, lip gloss and nail polish and numerous other products.

Microbeads (made from synthetic polymers such as polyethylene, polylactic acid and polypropylene) are tiny bits of plastic used as replacements for natural exfoliation materials like pumice, oatmeal and other substances.

Microbeads were patented in the 1970s, but have only been used as a disposable entity in consumer products during the last few years.

A dental hygienist was one of the early persons to sound the alarm about the harmful effects of microbeads.

On Sept. 17, 2014, CNN posted a Fox News story about Trish Walraven, a dental hygienist in Phoenix, Arizona, who started noticing little blue dots trapped in the tiny spaces between people’s teeth and gums. It turned out that the small objects were microbeads — unhealthy for you and the planet.

Trish wrote a blog that received national publicity and caught the attention of Proctor and Gamble, makers of Crest, which decided to phase out the microbeads used in certain of its toothpastes by early 2016. (http://fox6now.com/2014/09/17/toothpaste-manufacturer-takes-action-after-dental-hygienists-discovery/)

In a study, “Scientific Evidence Support a Ban on Microbeads,” published an American Chemical Society (United States) 2015 publication (Environmental Science & Technology) the researchers say that microbeads have been contributing to the major plastic pollution in oceans, lakes and other aquatic habitats. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1021/acs.est.5b03909)

According to the researchers there are more than eight trillion microbeads entering aquatic habitats every day in the United States alone. These plastic beads settle into sewage sludge, which is often used as fertilizer on farms and winds up in waterways.

“We’re facing a plastic crisis and don’t even know it,” said Stephanie Green, co-author of the study and David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow at Oregon State University. “Contaminants like these microbeads are not something our wastewater treatment plants were built to handle, and the overall amount of contamination is huge.”

Plastic microbeads absorb long-lasting toxic chemicals like pesticides, flame retardants, motor oil and other industrial chemicals that move up the food chain when the toxic-coated beads are consumed by fish and other marine organisms. A single microbead, researchers say, can be up to a million times more toxic than the water around it.

Researchers have found that phytoplankton and zooplankton at the base of the food chain ingest micro plastic particles. 

The researchers say fish species that humans harvest for food eat micro-plastic toxin containing particles at an alarming rate.

Chelsea Rochman of the University of California, Davis and lead author of the study, said microbeads were one of many types of microplastics found in the gut content of the marine wildfire that they examined.

Despite the fact that they contribute to the plastic debris being in oceans, microbeads are one of the most controllable problems.

“The probability of risk from microbead pollution is high, while the solution to the problem is simple. Banning microbeads from products that enter wastewater will ultimately protect water quality, wildlife and resources used by people,” concluded the researchers.

Scientists from the study called for a complete ban on microbeads.

In June 2014, the state of Illinois became the first state to ban the production, manufacture and sale of products that contain plastic microbeads.

Doug Farquhar, who directs the Environmental Health Program at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), says “the ban caught on fast. In 2013, no bills were introduced on microbeads. Last year (2014), seven states reviewed legislation on microbeads, but only Illinois enacted a law. In 2015, 47 bills were introduced in 25 states. Nine (CA, CO, CT, IL, IN, IA, ME, MD, NJ and WI) were signed into law.”

Study researchers say that some of the legislation does not go far enough to eliminate microbeads that claim to be "biodegradable" but are not.

The researchers say some of the bans have loopholes because microbeads used in personal care products (such as deodorant and nail polish) are not considered “rinse off” and some laws or regulations permit so-called “biodegradable” products.

California ’s law prohibits biodegradable microbeads. The consumer products industry objected to certain aspects of California’s law, arguing that it is overly restrictive and does not allow companies to come up with environmentally friendly alternatives.

The authors of the study call for wording in laws ensuring a total ban on materials that are "persistent, bio-accumulative, or toxic” in addition to products that are meant to be washed down the drain.

On Monday, Dec. 28, 2015 President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which prohibits “the manufacture or the introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of a rinse off cosmetic (including toothpaste) that contains intentionally added plastic microbeads.”

The act defines microbeads as: “any solid plastic particle that is less than five millimeters in size and intended to be used to exfoliate or cleanse the human body or any part thereof.” 

Beginning in July 2017, the federal law will phase out the manufacture of specific microbeads and by July 2019, it will completely halt distribution of all defined cosmetic and personal care products containing microbeads. To see a copy of the law go to: https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-114hr1321enr/pdf/BILLS-114hr1321enr.pdf).

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “removing microbeads from cosmetics and personal care products is a positive step toward combating marine debris in our waters. However, we must keep in mind that there are more than eight million metric tons of plastic introduced into the ocean each year, with microbeads only acting as one of many sources.”

To help reduce plastics ending up in the ocean NOAA recommends: drinking tap water from reusable containers: taking along reusable coffee mugs, food containers, silverware, and shopping bags; buying fewer plastic items; avoiding products with plastic microbeads; recycling the plastics you use; using trash cans with lids to help keep plastics and other waste from accidentally ending up in our waterways; and, joining beach cleanups to help pick up trash along waterways and  coasts. (See: https://marinedebrisblog.wordpress.com/2015/12/30/the-president-signs-a-national-microbead-ban/