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Tiny plastic microbeads pile up into problems for the Great Lakes

July 30, 2014 at 6:39 PM EDT
Scientists are investigating a surprising new pollutant in the country’s waterways: the tiny plastic beads found in common cosmetic products. Illinois has become the first state to ban these synthetic microbeads. Brandis Friedman of WTTW Chicago reports on the potential hazards.

GWEN IFILL: Scientists are looking into a surprising new pollutant in the country’s waterways: those tiny plastic beads found in common cosmetic products.

The state of Illinois is the first to ban what they call microbeads.

Brandis Friedman of WTTW Chicago reports.

ACTRESS: What if you could shrink your pores?

ACTRESS: Just by washing your face?

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN, WTTW Chicago: Microbeads have been all the rage in hand sanitizers, body wash and facial scrub, even toothpaste. They’re supposed to help remove dead cells or tighten pores, as the product in this commercial claims.

But they worry Olga Lyandres.

OLGA LYANDRES, Alliance for the Great Lakes: When you think about how many of these are being used daily and washed down the drain, it’s quite staggering.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Lyandres is the research manager for the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

OLGA LYANDRES: This is something that impacts the ecosystem, the wildlife by entangling fish. And birds ingest these particles, and it impacts their health. But also it’s a sort of a cultural issue, because people who grew up around Great Lakes and go to the beach don’t want to go to beach that’s dirty and littered by plastic items.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Scientists are also seeing evidence that the microbeads are reaching the water. At Loyola University Chicago, Professor  Timothy Hoellein and his student researchers are looking for the plastic beads in samples of water taken from rivers in and around Chicago, as well as Lake Michigan.

Last year, Sherri Mason at the State University of New York in Fredonia found anywhere from 1,500 to 1.1 million microbeads per square mile in the Great Lakes, the world’s largest source of freshwater.

TIMOTHY HOELLEIN, Loyola University Chicago: What we’re interested in doing is determining the concentration of microplastic that’s in the rivers, determining the source of microplastic, and also the different types of these small plastic pieces that we find in the river.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: So far, Hoellein says his research shows that the synthetic microbeads are coming from treated wastewater that flows into sanitary canals and rivers, which feed into larger bodies of water.

TIMOTHY HOELLEIN: Our initial findings from the North Shore channel showed very high concentrations of microplastic downstream of a wastewater effluent source, and in fact our concentrations were higher than what had been found in ocean. So, not only did we find it, but we found a lot of the material.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: In June, Governor Pat Quinn signed into law legislation making Illinois the first state in the union to ban the manufacture and sale of personal care products containing synthetic plastic microbeads.

The new law requires that the beads be removed from manufacturing by the end of 2018 and the products can no longer be sold starting at the end of 2019. And since major manufacturers make products for the entire country, other states will begin to notice the change on their store shelves as well, whether or not they have passed their own ban.

Lyandres, whose organization was pushing for the ban in Illinois, wanted the products gone sooner.

OLGA LYANDRES: We would’ve liked to have seen a more compressed timeline for phase-out. The sooner you can get these companies to make products available with alternatives, the better and less of it ends up in the waterways.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Two organizations representing the personal care product industry worked with environmental advocates and lawmakers to craft the Illinois bill.

Representatives from the Personal Care Products Council declined an on-camera interview, but in a statement said — quote — “Our industry takes concerns regarding the presence of plastic microbeads in the environment very seriously. Many personal care products companies have voluntarily committed to discontinue formulating with plastic microbeads in cleansing products in favor of other viable alternatives despite the uncertainty associated with the science.”

It is true that the long-term impact of the microbeads on the environment is unknown. And scientists are looking into how they might carry other organisms and chemicals.

TIMOTHY HOELLEIN: One of the concerns is that microbes on that plastic could be pathogenic. They might be disease-causing. And they may be kind of dispersed further in the environment on a plastic surface than they would on a natural surface.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: And because the beads float on the water’s surface, fish mistake them for food. The plastic alone is bad for fish health, but so are the microbes that the beads can carry.

TIMOTHY HOELLEIN: Once the plastic is inside their guts, it can actually come off. So, it may represent a kind of delivery mechanism for these harmful chemicals that just didn’t exist previously.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Among other unanswered questions: Do humans end up unknowingly eating the plastic after it’s been consumed by fish?

TIMOTHY HOELLEIN: There’s really no research on the long-term impact of microbeads or other forms of microplastic because we have only just recently started looking for them.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Microbeads end up in the waterways because water treatment plants simply can’t catch them. They’re too small.

DAVID ST. PIERRE, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago: So small that even if there’s a sand filter in a plant, it doesn’t stop them from passing through the plant and into the water environment.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: This is the third step in the water treatment process, where water is aerated, so lighter material rises to the top and heavier waste sinks to the bottom. But somewhere in the mix are still the microbeads, which make it through this entire multistep process and are sent out to the sanitary and ship canal along with fully treated water.

Pretty much nothing that you all can do about that? 

DAVID ST. PIERRE: Not without a significant investment.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: David St. Pierre is the executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. He argues we should focus on prevention.

DAVID ST. PIERRE: If we were to adapt our plants to deal with microbeads, it would be a very expensive process. If we deal with it on front end, we take care of it before it’s a problem by eliminating it as a pollutant source, very inexpensive way to deal with the problem.

TIMOTHY HOELLEIN: Finding a new problem in our freshwater ecosystems is alarming and concerning, and we should all be worried, but I think what the Illinois ban on microbeads has shown is that, once we become aware of the problem and the scale and the context and the sources, we can really start to take some real action towards some meaningful solutions.

BRANDIS FRIEDMAN: Legislatures in New York, California and Ohio are considering bans similar to Illinois. Instead of plastics, some manufacturers are already planning to use natural ingredients, like apricot seeds, sand or oatmeal to achieve the same goals.