Scientists are calling for an outright federal ban on plastic microbeads commonly used in body washes, face scrubs, and toothpaste, explaining that the micro-sized assailants pose an increasingly lethal threat to ocean, freshwater, and river wildlife across the globe.
In a recent report, researchers from seven institutions have estimated that every day, a whopping 808 trillion microbeads are washed down drains in the United States, while some 8 trillion microbeads are dumped into our waterways in effluent released from wastewater treatment plants. That is enough to cover more than 300 tennis courts daily. Once in aquatic environments, these microbeads, which are made of hydrocarbons, absorb pollutants and are often mistaken for fish eggs, zooplankton, or other forms of food by wildlife, which ingest them.
“Microbeads become reservoirs of contaminants, wherever the current is taking them,” said Alison Chase, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The plastic microbeads are not necessary in any form, and there is a big question about whether or not these could be potentially passed onto people when we eat seafood.”
For Stephanie Green, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University and co-author of the report, microbeads present an unprecedented challenge due to their size. “People are becoming increasingly aware of the problem of persisting plastics in the environment,” Green said. “But these are tiny little fragments of plastic and many people are using these products, but are unaware that plastic is involved — it’s an out of sight, out of mind problem.”
Related: Microbeads Kill Animals and Destroy the Environment — So California May Ban Them
But the state of California has given Green and other scientists reason to believe that the concerns could soon gain traction on a federal level. Earlier this month, state legislators passed a comprehensive ban on microbeads that conservation advocates are calling the strongest legislation yet. While weaker bills have passed in seven other US states, loopholes written into the laws fail to protect aquatic environments from harmful alternatives to microbeads.