« Unfortunately, they look like fish food. » Marcus Eriksen, on the micro beads, above, and other plastic particles found in the Great Lakes

Brendan Bannon • New York Times,

Toiletry beads present new threat to Great Lakes

  • Article by: JOHN SCHWARTZ
  • New York Times
  • December 21, 2013 - 6:18 PM

– The newest environmental threat to the Great Lakes is very, very small.

Tiny plastic beads used in hundreds of toiletries such as facial scrubs and toothpastes are slipping through water treatment plants and turning up by the tens of millions in the Great Lakes. There, fish and other aquatic life eat them along with the pollutants they carry — which scientists fear could be working their way back up the food chain to humans.

Scientists have worried about plastic debris in the oceans for decades but focused on enormous accumulations of floating junk. More recently, the question of smaller bits has gained attention, because plastics degrade so slowly and become coated with poisons in the water such as the cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs.

Studies published in recent months have drawn attention to the Great Lakes, where there may be even greater concentrations of plastic particles than are found in oceans. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has also been looking at the impact of microplastics on marine life.

In recent months, major cosmetics companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, have pledged to phase out the use of the beads in favor of natural alternatives, although they say the shift could take two years or more.

Johnson & Johnson, along with others, has questioned whether the spheres are actually getting through wastewater treatment plants. So Sherri A. Mason, an environmental chemist at the State University of New York in Fredonia, has spent the past two summers trolling the Great Lakes with a fine-mesh net that has a broad mouth for skimming surface waters.

Working with students aboard the brig Niagara, Mason has collected more than 100 samples, which her students examine minutely for beads and other debris. In a recent paper, Mason and colleagues took samples that suggested concentrations of as much as 1.1 million bits of microplastics per square mile in some parts of the lakes’ surfaces, with beads making up more than 60 percent of the samples. She has found beads in all five of the lakes, with the greatest concentrations in Erie and Ontario, which take the water flows from the other lakes, and which are ringed with cities and towns.

While many of the beads appear to enter the environment when storms cause many wastewater treatment plants to release raw sewage, it is increasingly clear that the beads slip through the processing plants as well, Mason said at a sewage treatment plant in North East, a town near Erie.

She said the plants are not designed to capture the tiny beads, which are roughly the size of a period on a newspaper page, or smaller. “It’s a design problem with the product.”

Some producers of natural facial products have found alternatives to the inexpensive plastics. Mason applauded their use, because there is no getting rid of beads that are in the water.

So the answer to the problem of the tiny beads is to limit their use, she said. “We need to stop putting it out there.”

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