Illinois could soon become the first state to ban microbeads, the tiny plastic particles added to many body cleansers and toothpastes that have fast become an environmental menace.
A number of brand-name products use microbeads to aid exfoliation, giving consumers a well-scrubbed feeling.
But recent scientific investigations have shown that the micro plastic balls are also found in major lakes and other waterways that communities rely on for drinking water, where they absorb toxic chemicals released into the environment and are eaten by fish, which mistake them for food.
The Illinois State Senate approved SB2727 earlier this month, which would phase out the use of microbeads in products by 2017. The measure will move on to the House, and it has the support of industry groups such as the Personal Care Products Council and Alliance for the Great Lakes.
“We must keep these contaminants out of Lake Michigan so they don’t end up in our drinking water or fish dinners,” said state Sen. Heather Steans, a Democrat from Chicago who sponsored the bill, in a statement.
California, New York and Ohio have followed suit by introducing similar legislation to phase out microbeads in the next few years, and manufacturers such as Unilever and Johnson & Johnson have made recent pledges to remove the items from their products.
Microbeads, which do not biodegrade, are usually washed down drains. They pass through wastewater treatment plant processes and into open bodies of water, like the Great Lakes, the world’s largest surface freshwater source, according to Sherri Mason, a chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia and coordinator of the university’s environmental sciences program.
“Anything that’s in the water,” she told Al Jazeera, “is ultimately in us.”
She added, “There’s a lot of consumer products on the marketplace that a lot of people use, and they don’t know that they’re filled with plastics."
Mason has collaborated with the Los Angeles–based 5 Gyres Institute, a group that aims to reduce pollution, on preliminary investigations into the prevalence of plastics in the five Great Lakes, finding what she says are “significant amounts” of microbeads in each body of water, making up 48 percent of all plastics found.
Mason has been teaching her environmental chemistry students about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for years, showing them photographs of birds whose stomachs were bloated from eating plastics and other trash.
While teaching an annual three-week summer course aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara on Lake Erie, she concocted an offhand experiment to test those waters for plastics to illustrate the idea of plastics pollution.
“It turned into something much bigger than I anticipated,” she said, when she and her team discovered the water was filled with microbeads. Along with 5 Gyres, they moved on to investigate the water in the other lakes, which were all contaminated with microbeads that had been flushed through the wastewater system and into open water.
Lake Ontario was the most polluted, with 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometer, which Mason said is comparable to the highest counts of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, which scientists have been monitoring far longer than the lakes.
The problem, she explained, is that the microbeads floating on the surface of the lakes are absorbing toxic chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which were used as insulators in electrical and hydraulic equipment until they were found to be carcinogenic and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned them in 1979.
Even though they’re banned, they persistent in the environment, along with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, compounds that are released during incomplete burning of coal or garbage.
Those chemicals end up in the lake water — and then they are absorbed by the surface of the plastic particles.
“Basically, the concern is that they’re being ingested by fish,” Mason said. “We’re just at the forefront of doing some analysis to confirm that. But since the beginning part of that research project, I can say we are finding them in fish.”
She added, “If they move into the food chain, they’ll move up the food chain, and we are at the top.”
The United States produces 32 million tons of plastic waste per year, but environmental advocates point to the microbead problem as easily fixable with natural alternatives like walnut husks, salt, cocoa beans and sand.
In the meantime, Mason and her team are moving forward by doing autopsies of fish to look for the presence of plastics and examining river sediment for plastics to test whether some plastics are sinking.
These animals that are seeing the effects of the world’s plastic use, she said, are an indicator of what humans will face in the decades to come. “They’re much smaller, with shorter lifetimes, so they tend to show the impacts of these things much faster than humans will. We eventually will follow. We know that that’s ultimately happening to us too.”