It turns out your exfoliating scrub could be polluting Lake Michigan. In late February, Michigan legislators introduced a Senate bill that would ban microbeads—those tiny plastic particles found in face wash, toothpaste, and other personal care products.
Melissa Duhaime is a research scientist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan.
She and her team spent several weeks last summer on a research boat in the Great Lakes skimming for microplastics—which means any plastic smaller than five millimeters.
“What really hit home for us was every time we pulled that net into the boat, that we found plastic in every single sample,” says Duhaime.
Duhaime says, so far, the data suggests the Great Lakes have the highest concentration of microplastics in the world.
Because these tiny particles float in the water, they can be mistaken for fish food. According to U of M scientists, even small amounts of plastic have been shown to stunt growth and reproduction in aquatic life. What’s more worrisome is what microplastics carry—bacteria and persistent bioaccumulative toxins or PBTs.
PBTs are old leftover pollutants that become more toxic as they move up the food chain. Duhaime says usually these pollutants attach themselves to sediment and sink to the bottom.
“So that the only organisms that are potentially exposed are those that live are those that live in the benthic communities down in the sediment. The thing about the plastics, however, is that they’re attracting these pollutants but they don’t sink," she says.
"So they’re holding on to them and keeping them up in the surface water in the water columns. So that’s why they pose a relatively new type of exposure threat.”
Duhaime says right now it doesn’t seem as if the fish are eating enough microplastics to cause concern, but there’s just too much we don’t know.
“The question for all of us—Great Lakes inhabitants, scientists, and policy makers alike—is whether we should wait the years in might take to obtain the results or whether we should move forward already and ban these additives,” says Duhaime.
The new Michigan Senate bill aims to do just that. State Senate Bill 158 would ban the sale of microbeads. State Senator Steve Bieda is sponsoring the bill. Some manufacturers have pledged to stop putting microbeads in their products—like Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble. But Bieda says more action is needed to protect the Great Lakes and this seems like a simple fix.
“Particularly for something that doesn’t need to be there. I mean, for example, for microbeads there are a lot of alternatives that will break down like crushed apricot shells, coco beans, oatmeal, sea salt. These things are often added as a microbead type of substitute in products. They work just the same but the advantage of those is they’re biodegradable and they’re natural materials. They’re not synthetic materials that are entering the food chain and getting into the bodies of living organisms including people.”
This is the bill’s second attempt after failing in the last state legislative session. Bieda says, this round, lawmakers have more time to act and manufacturers have more time to adjust. If approved, the law wouldn’t take effect until 2019.
Last week, Michigan Congressman Fred Upton re-introduced a microbead bill at the federal level. Other Great Lakes states like Wisconsin and Minnesota are also thinking about banning microbeads, and Illinois and Indiana have already done so.
But unlike the Michigan bill, the Illinois and Indiana laws allow the sale of products with so-called “biodegradable plastics.” Duhaime says that’s a big mistake.
“We rarely have a good handle on what they’re breaking down into and a lot of times those products could be even more harmful than the initial microbeads," she says.
Even if all the Great Lakes states ban microbeads in personal care products, Duhaime says we will still have a long way to go to keep the lakes safe from plastic pollutants. Microbeads are only a small portion of all the microplastics her team is finding in the lakes.
“What they’re finding in these fish stomachs are ingested fibers and filaments and we’re hypothesizing that these are most likely coming from plastics in our clothing—especially fleece as well as nylon and polyester. If you start looking at the tags of the things in your closet, you’ll recognize that…my guess more than 90 percent of the clothing we all wear contains some bits of plastic.”
The Michigan microbead ban, State Senate Bill 158, awaits a decision by the State Senate’s Government Operation Committee.