On every hot summer day of my childhood, I walked two blocks down the street to Lake Ontario and splashed around. On those days, I couldn’t have imagined a future in which the lake would fill up with microbeads, tiny plastic particles that for the last two decades have been accumulating in lakes and oceans around the world. Particles so small they are almost invisible — tiny but with big effects. Lake Ontario now has an average of more than 1 million beads per square kilometre — tiny globules of plastic, many of which come from scrubs that exfoliate our skin and toothpastes that abrade our teeth. One jar of scrub can contain as many as 300,000 microbeads.
Yes, scrubs! For many years, we lived without them. But the 1990s saw a surge in their popularity when cosmetic companies added plastic microbeads to personal care products for a smoother feel. On the label they are identified as polyethylene or polypropylene. Because of their small size, when they’re washed off, sewage treatment plants can’t screen them out. As a result, tests conducted by the 5 Gyres Institute, a California-based group, found concentrations of microbeads in the Great Lakes were extremely high, higher in fact than in their ocean samples.
And too late we are learning the effects on fish and other water-loving creatures in the Great Lakes and around the world. Because these plastic beads are the size of fish eggs or plankton, fish, birds and others mistake them for food and ingest them. We know this because microbeads have been found in the digestive tracts of fish and other marine animals. And the risk is not limited to animals. That fried squid or bowl of mussels on the menu can send them up the food chain into our own digestive systems. As well, when they are released into the water, these small particles act like mini sponges soaking up toxic pollutants like motor oil, phthalates, flame retardants or PCBs. For the Great Lakes, this means that these toxins become more widely dispersed as they attach themselves to the microbeads.
The good news is that some action is underway. The state of Illinois, bordering on Lake Michigan, is the first jurisdiction in the Great Lakes Basin to ban microbeads from consumer products, and a few companies, sensing public concern, have pledged to phase them out. The Illinois bill, however, stops short of banning biodegradable plastics, leaving the door open for ongoing problems. In June of this year, a committee of advisors to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission passed a resolution calling on Canadian and American governments at all levels to prohibit the sale of cosmetic and personal care products containing microbeads by 2015. However, so far, the governments of Ontario and Canada have not risen to the challenge.
The presence of microbeads in the Great Lakes raises the pressing issue of plastic contamination of all the world’s large bodies of water. It also reflects the failure of governments to anticipate the injuries that chemicals can inflict on ecosystems, and demonstrates the loopholes in legislation and international agreements governing toxic chemicals. Although the Canadian Environmental Protection Act has some limited provisions for testing new chemicals, there is no official way to assess the impacts of the chemicals already in commerce when their different applications and novel uses pose problems. Nor does the government demand that companies evaluate the impact of the degradation products of the chemical compounds that make up microbeads or their metabolites on fish and waterways. Tiny particles applied in new ways, as we see with microbeads, can pose unanticipated hazards related to their size and distribution, not just their physical and chemical properties. Right now, these subtle effects are under the radar of Canada’s programs to evaluate the toxicity of existing chemicals. As a consequence, they are also likely to be overlooked by the Canadian and American governments in their binational effort to identify chemicals of concern in the Great Lakes.
Meanwhile, as we wait for governments to respond to these problems, the burden is on us to protect the lakes. Our only option is to exercise our power as consumers, refuse to buy products that scrub or abrade us using plastic and choose those that use salt or other less harmful abrasives. The ingredient lists on personal care products, unfortunately, are required reading if we want to minimize the particles of plastic accumulating in the Great Lakes.