It looks like our face wash is loading the Great Lakes with tiny plastic pellets.
A recent study of three of the five Great Lakes – Huron, Superior, and Erie, to be exact – show that micro plastic is abundant. And when I say micro, I mean micro. These little balls of plastic measure less than a millimeter across. That means that they are too small to be caught by water treatment plants, so WHOOSH! They flow right on through.
These micro plastics didn’t come out of nowhere. They come from the abrasives uses in body scrubs. Because, as mentioned before, the beads are to small for water treatment plants, when you wash them down the sink, there is basically nothing standing in their way. According to Scientific American, this can cause an issue for lake wildlife:
The biggest worry: fish such as yellow perch or turtles and seagulls think of them as dinner. If fish or birds eat the inert beads, the material can deprive them of nutrients from real food or get lodged in their stomachs or intestines, blocking digestive systems.
That’s not great.
There is a wide variety of concentrations in the three Great Lakes that were studied, but the highest concentration is found in Lake Erie. Researchers will study the two remaining lakes this summer.
The researchers aren’t just concerned because they love nature. What happens at the bottom and middle of the food chain could have an effect on us. The beads are composed of a variety of types of plastics, and not all of them are completely safe. But one of the researchers pointed out that we just don’t know yet how the wildlife are responding to the plastics and whether any problems that are found will travel up the food chain.
We don’t know what’s going on yet with the fish or the organisms eating the plastic with these pollutants in the Great Lakes,” [Lorena] Rios says. “I plan to study whether the endocrine system of the fish is damaged and whether the problem stops there or moves up the food chain in harmful amounts all the way to humans.”
In a follow-up study, researchers plan to study the effect of sunlight on the pollutants. As the sun breaks down the plastics, scientists can get a better idea of where the plastic is coming from.
“You can almost never identify what product or where the source of micro plastics is out to sea,” explains Marcus Eriksen, executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute. “But in the Great Lakes we can.” Because the lakes are a smaller, confined geographic area, he explains, it’s easier to determine more accurate waste characterization from samples or identify possible sources of polluted effluent than in the vast, open oceans.
Even though the pollutants can stay in the environment for 50 years, it looks like we’re on our way to heading the problem off at the source: your face wash. The Body Shop and L’Oreal have discontinued using plastic micro beads in their facial and body cleansers, Johnson & Johnson announced that it will stop using the micro beads in all of its products, and Unilever will stop using them by 2015.