The tiny exfoliating "microbeads" that millions of people slather onto their faces every morning are having a dire effect on the marine ecosystems, according to a new research by scientists at Plymouth University in England. Writing for Marine Pollution Bulletin, the researchers discovered that the beads found in popular facial scrubs and toothpaste likely form a significant chunk of the plastic microparticles contributing to the destabilization of ocean environments around the world.
About 93 percent of beads in hygienic products, like facial scrubs, are actually various kinds of microplastics that mimic natural exfoliants like oatmeal and pumice. Such beads are also found in hygienic products like soaps, toothpastes, and hand cleansers, but researchers specifically examined six different types of facial scrubs from three different companies, looking at the quantity and shape of the microbeads in each. They discovered that a significant quantity of the tiny plastic bits were likely to pass through filtration systems and into the ocean.
The researchers echoed earlier studies conducted by environmentalists. They found the beads in facial scrubs came in irregular shapes — ellipses, ribbons, and threads — that are difficult to detect during water sampling, indicating that past estimates of oceanic plastic pollution undercounted for microbead plastic. Additionally, most of the beads they examined were blue or white, the same color as some types of plankton eaten by surface-dwelling fish, which are visual predators.
Marine biologists are still uncovering the full effect of plastic on ocean biota, but Richard Thompson, an author of the microbeads study, said their findings bode ill for animals in the sea, especially because the particles absorb other pollutants. Past studies, cited by Thompson and his colleagues, found that around 700 marine organisms encounter human garbage in their natural environment, 90 percent of which was plastic.
"Laboratory experiments have shown small quantities of microplastics can reduce the ability of marine organisms to process the food they eat," he told VICE News. "This could have consequences for growth and reproduction. There is also the concern that ingestion of plastic could lead to the transfer of potentially harmful chemicals from seawater to organisms."
The researchers estimated that residents in the United Kingdom could be emitting 16 to 86 tons of plastic into the natural environment every year from facial exfoliants alone. Previous research found that American consumers are responsible for discarding 263 tons of microplastic each year.
Richard points out that any attempt to manually remove the microbeads from oceans is practically impossible, and there's no way consumers can cleanly dispose of them.
"This is a problem created by inappropriate product design, with little consideration for the consequences in terms of environmental contamination," he told VICE News. "The solution is to stop using plastic particles in these products. In my view, this either needs to be achieved by effective voluntary action from producers or via legislation."
In the last year, several states have passed laws regulating microbeads, including California, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, Colorado, Indiana, and Maryland. Similar regulations are sitting in the legislatures of Michigan, Connecticut, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington. The US Congress is also considering laegislation.
Staley Prom, a staff attorney at Surfrider, a nonprofit watchdog that advocates clean beach and ocean environments, said she was encouraged by the federal bill but had some reservations about its wording. In its current form, the bill only targets microbeads in cosmetics, excluding hygienic products like toothpaste, hand-cleansers, shaving cream, soap.
In order to close these loopholes, Prom said Congress should take a page from California's playbook. The state's microbead legislation is the strongest in the nation, as it bans beads in all forms, including so-called "biodegradable plastics" which are still permissible in some states with microbead regulations.
"What the [cosmetics] industry is calling biodegradable plastic hasn't been proven to actually break down into natural elements when it reaches marine environments," Prom told VICE News. "We don't want industry exceptions to pervade solving the problem [of microbead pollution] and we don't want to see the problems associated with plastics and toxic bioaccumulation in marine life to continue."
When contacted by VICE News regarding microbead legislation and the study, a representative of the Personal Care Products Council, the trade association that represents the personal care and cosmetic industry, declined to comment.
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