The Threat of Microbeads in the Great Lakes

Progress is being made in restoring the health of the Great Lakes through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other state and government programs. Yet old threats from toxic sediments and new threats from microbead pollution keep reminding us that there is more work yet to do to ensure the health of the Great Lakes. This morning on NPR, Cheryl Corley covered the threat to the Great Lakes from microbeads, speaking with the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Jennifer Caddick and Jared Teutsch.

Bills before the New York and Illinois state legislatures would set down timelines for microbeads to be removed from products sold in the states. In Illinois, the proposed bill would ban the manufacture of microbeads by 2017 and ban distribution by 2018. In New York, the bill would require manufacturers to have eliminated microbeads by the end of 2015. Jared Teutsch with the Alliance for the Great Lakes was quoted by NPR, saying: “There’s still urgency there, and we’d like to see companies move faster than [those deadlines], and we hope they will.” Many other states in the region are also considering bans, including Minnesota, Ohio, and Michigan.

The Dangers Posed by Microbeads

According to Sherri Mason, an associate professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia interviewed by NPR, these beads are so dangerous because they are about the same size as fish eggs—a popular food for fish and other wildlife in the Great Lakes food chain. Because these microbeads easily attract and absorb toxins, the beads are harmful to any wildlife that eats them. And the toxins from the beads can accumulate in fish and wildlife, even potentially reaching humans who eat wildlife around the Great Lakes region.

Mason has sampled water throughout the Great Lakes and has found concentrations of microbeads as high as 1.1 million beads per square kilometer in Lake Ontario. Lakes Huron and Superior have the lowest concentrations—well below Lake Michigan’s average concentration of 17,000 beads per square kilometer.

Consumers and Companies Taking Action

For consumers who wish to be proactive about no longer using cosmetics or soaps with microbeads, the NPR story suggests checking for polyethylene or polypropylene in the ingredients—an indicator of plastic. Already, L’Oréal, Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble have decided to phase out the use of microbeads and replace them with more natural ingredients, like cocoa beans, sand, or apricot pits. Dr. Mason concluded the NPR story by saying “I’d much rather wash my face with chocolate than with plastic.”

You can listen to the whole NPR story here.


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