Mostly everyone wants vibrant, smooth skin, but did you know that many exfoliating products contain microplastics that a new study says could be harming marine life?
The research, conducted by a team of researchers from Plymouth University and the University of Exeter in the UK and published this week in the journal Current Biology, demonstrates that microplastics may transfer toxins such as those that make up flame retardants into the guts of lugworms.
Lugworms are marine creatures that live in burrows on beaches across the north Atlantic shoreline. They feed on plankton but are known to consume anything that is filtered through the sand. They act as an important food source for several animals, including curlew and flatfish. They are thought to make up around 30% of the biomass on an average sandy beach site.
Now, scientists have found evidence that microplastics consumed by lugworms are transferring toxins into the lugworms’ bodies, and they appear to be suffering as a result.
While on the surface this might appear to be only a small issue, it speaks to the wider concern of microplastics infiltrating delicate ecosystems and backs up other research that, for instance, has shown that nanoparticles impact sea organisms like mussels.
What are Microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny (defined as 1mm or smaller) pieces of plastic. Microplastics have been shown to be accumulating in our oceans since the 1960s and are now thought to be among the most abundant forms of what are known as solid-waste pollution. They are also known to have infiltrated many lake systems.
Microplastics can be formed in a number of ways and may be the result of larger plastic products being broken down. However, one way they are entering the marine habitat is as a result of beauty products we use every day and the tiny plastic beads they contain which are too small to be filtered at waste treatment plants.
These beads are usually called “microbeads” on product packaging and can be found in things like face wash products and also in beauty masks and other products that aim to exfoliate, buff or polish the skin. They have also been used in soaps and some detergents.
According to the Marine Conservation Society, they can be listed as:
- Polyethylene / Polythene (PE)
- Polypropylene (PP)
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
What did the Researchers Find and Why is this Research Important?
Researchers confirmed for the first time that toxins can transfer from these plastics into marine animals. They determined that lugworms experienced a variety of problems as a result of consuming the microplastics and the chemicals they carry, including a reduced ability to feed. This has a knock-on effect as the lugworms effectively filter sand and prevent silt build up. If their ability to filter is hampered, the detritus could build up and impact other animals.
The other important note this research provides is that the microplastic contamination could have an accumulative effect, meaning that animals further up the food chain that are feeding on lugworms and other marine animals could be at risk.
“Our findings show that the plastic itself can be a problem and can affect organisms,” co-author Professor Richard Thompson is quoted as saying. “Also, when particles of plastic go into the environment what you find is that they accumulate large quantities of pollutants that are banned. So you have these particles themselves but also a load of nasty chemicals.”
While more research will need to be done to get a picture of just how many creatures might be affected, it is reasonable based on other studies that have already been done that we will see many marine animals that may at least carry signs of a rise of certain toxins that should not be present in our marine habitats.
What Can be Done About the Microplastic Problem?
In terms of neutralizing the toxins that have already made their way into marine habitats, that is a difficult question. Certainly, tighter regulations that track how waste plastics are processed is one way of trying to prevent microplastics that we don’t know about getting into the ecosystem. Creating methods to filter microplastics will also be needed. Cutting down on microplastic waste is one other way that we can tackle this problem, and that’s where the general public can take action.
Choosing products that don’t contain microplastic beads is an easy step. For instance, there are a range of simple, organic recipes for exfoliators that can replace store bought varieties. These do not contain microplastics but will likely still have the desired benefits. We can also apply pressure to cosmetic companies and call on them to abandon microplastics and microbeads — after all, harming marine life is far from a beautiful thing.
Image credit: Thinkstock.