Plastic Microbeads: The Newest Threat to the Great Lakes

I grew up just a block away from Lake Michigan, dunked my head in all five Great Lakes two summers ago and thought I knew the lakes pretty well.  I am all too familiar with no-swim days, when pollutants reach levels hazardous to human health, not to mention the stench of rotting algae blooms caused by fertilizer run-off and the invasive zebra mussels that cover rocks and piers along the shoreline.

Still, I was shocked to learn of a new pollutant in all the lakes: plastic microbeads.

Nearly 3 million of these tiny plastic particles were found per square mile in parts of Lake Erie. Many of my favorite products were major offenders. For instance, Neutrogena Deep Clean face wash contains about 360,000 microbeads per tube, according to the 5 Gyres Institute. Unlike other pollutants, these microbeads are purposefully designed to rinse off and go straight down the drain.

Microbeads are roughly the size of plankton and fish eggs. That makes them look like a snack to Great Lakes wildlife. They have been found in the digestive tracts of fish and other marine animals. Eating them at your fish fry would not only lend an unpleasant sandy texture to your beer-battered fish but could also add an unhealthy dose of estrogen-mimicking chemicals. These little plastic beads also act as tiny toxic sponges, soaking up chemical pollutants such as phthalates and PCBs.

Luckily, there are easy alternatives. Cosmetics makers can use natural exfoliants such as apricot seeds or cocoa nibs. Many companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever have pledged to rid their products of microplastics.

On June 8, Illinois became the first state to ban microbeads in consumer products. That’s progress, but change can’t happen fast enough. Once these microparticles enter the water supply it's nearly impossible to remove them without also removing vital nutrients that wild creatures depend on. We have to stop using microbeads, period. I may miss the face wash that got me through some bad days in junior high, but I would certainly miss the pristine nature of the Great Lakes more.

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