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New York officials target microbeads; Tiny plastic bits in shampoo, toothpaste

By Fritz Mayer
May 28, 2014

REGION — Over the past three decades or so, manufacturers of personal care products such as soap and toothpaste have increasingly been adding tiny plastic microbeads to their products for their abrasive qualities.

Before the advent of these plastic beads, manufacturers used naturally occurring products such as sea salt and ground nut shells as abrasives, which readily break down in the environment. But the plastic microbeads are projected to last for centuries in both salt and fresh water.

The New York State attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, released a report on microbeads on May 16, which said that many municipal sewage systems in the state do not have the sort of equipment that can filter microbeads out of water streams. Therefore, countless numbers of the beads end up in the state’s waters, with Lake Eire being particularly hard hit. (It could not be immediately determined if microbeads exist in the Upper Delaware River.)

Schnedierman’s report said that of the 610 waste water treatment plants in New York State, “403 plants use no advanced treatment method likely to effectively remove microbeads from the wastewater stream.” Therefore the beads are discharged into water bodies and can become part of the food chain atop of which sits humans.

So, how much of a problem is this? According to the report, residents of New York State each year use products containing about 19 tons of microbeads.

The plastic particles are harmful because many of them have had chemicals added to them during manufacture, which can then be transferred to the animals that eat them. Further, these tiny pits of plastic are attractive to other pollutants that have been introduced into water bodies such as “polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.”

The report says, “These pollutants can lead to a host of health problems including birth defects, cancer, and learning and growth deficits in children. The New York State Department of Health has been tracking many of these pollutants in fish, turtles and waterfowl in New York waters…. Concentrations of hydrophobic pollutants in many species remain above protective target levels, resulting in consumption advisories especially for children, pregnant women, and women of childbearing age.”

Some of the largest personal care manufacturers, such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive and L’Oréal USA, have pledged to stop using microbeads, but not all companies are on board, and some that have pledged to end the practice have no firm end-date proposed.