Plastic microbeads used in personal care products such as toothpaste, face scrubs and body wash – intended to provide a scrubbing and cleaning effect – are a source of ocean pollution that threatens wildlife, say conservation researchers who are urging a ban.
In the U.S. alone, more than 8 trillion of the tiny plastic grains enter water habitats every day, flushed down bathroom sinks and ending up in the ocean, they say.
The beads, no larger than a grain of sand, are so small that filtration systems in sewage treatment plants can't trap them, allowing them to flow into the oceans. They are very durable, so they linger in the environment.
"Contaminants like these microbeads are not something our wastewater treatment plants were built to handle, and the overall amount of contamination is huge," says Stephanie Green from Oregon State University, co-author of a study appearing in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
The beads, which are not biodegradable, are often ingested by marine wildlife. An outright ban is the only way to protect that wildlife as well as water quality and resources used by people, the researchers suggest.
"We're facing a plastic crisis and don't even know it," Green says. "Part of this problem can now start with brushing your teeth in the morning."
Previous studies have shown microplastic particles similar to the microbeads can carry contaminants that cause toxic effects when ingested by animals, notes study lead author Chelsea Rochman of the University of California, Davis.
The new study is more evidence of the dangers of plastic pollution in the world's oceans, she says, and joins previous research that found 90 percent of seabirds and half the world's sea turtles have ingested plastic.
"We argue that the scientific evidence regarding microplastic supports legislation calling for a removal of plastic microbeads from personal care products," she says.
Some U.S. states, including California, Oregon and Washington, have already banned or regulated the use of microbeads.
In addition, a number of personal care companies, among them Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive, have stopped using the microbeads in their "rinse off" products.
Nontoxic and biodegradable alternatives are available, but more companies need to begin using them, the researchers say. They also suggest any legislation should cover both rinse-off and nonrinse-off products and make sure "material that is persistent, bioaccumulative, or toxic is not added to products designed to go down the drain."
Legislation introduced in Congress, The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, would "ban cosmetics that contain synthetic plastic microbeads" starting in 2018. The House bill, H.R. 1321, was referred to the Health subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in March. The Senate version of the bill, S. 1424, was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions in May. A bill must pass both houses and be signed by the president before it becomes law.