Each one is as small as a pen tip, and they are threatening our water. Known as microbeads, these tiny fragments of plastic are put into personal care products such as facewashes and shampoos. They may help us exfoliate when we scrub our skin, however they get washed down our plug holes, and pass through the sewage system - where they are too small to be filtered out - ending up in our rivers, canals, and eventually the ocean.
The magnetic effect
The plastic microbeads act as magnets for chemicals. In turn this looks like food to fish who ingest the pollutants. As part of the food chain, we may also be eating infected fish.
Rebecca Sutton, a senior scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute, stated in a recent article that in January scientists skimmed the water surface over nine large areas of San Francisco Bay. They found between 14,000 and 440,000 plastic particles, including microbeads, per square kilometre - an area of about 250 football fields.
Shifting the focus
Plastics in our oceans have been a global concern for a long time, but recently more attention is being given to freshwater areas. The Times Herald reported that Sherri Mason, a professor of chemistry at The State University of New York-Fredonia was one of the first researchers to find microbeads and other plastics in the Great Lakes. Sherri began work with The 5 Gyres Institute, an NGO whose previous research had been in the world’s oceans.
5 Gyres reported finding microbead concentrations of 450,000 per square kilometre in Lake Erie. They estimate that a care product can contain 360,000 microbeads in a single package.
Campaigning for change
NGOs such as the Plastic Soup Foundation have set up campaigns against the microbead. See http://www.beatthemicrobead.org/en/science
According to a recent article, some corporations are beginning to phase out microbeads. Crest will be phasing out by March 2016, and Johnson and Johnson by 2017. Earlier this month, Minnesota Senate banned soaps with plastic microbeads and California lawmakers are voting on banning ‘microbeads’ from personal care products.
The bigger picture
Microbeads are just part of the bigger picture on pollution. Freshwater Watch is working on projects around the world to assess the quality of Freshwater
Over to You:
Interested in ocean health? Watch the highlights of Earthwatch's recent event on tropical coastal ecosystems, where scientists illustrated how they work with mangroves, coral and seaweed. Also, remember it's World Oceans Day on 8th June.
This site lists products that do not use microbeads http://www.fauna-flora.org/initiatives/the-good-scrub-guide/
Sign up to Freshwater Watch to assist with research into pollution. You'll help to understand levels of pollution in your local waterbodies.
Coming next: N is for Namedropping
A is for Alien Invasions; B is for the Biggest!; C is for Crickets in your lunchbox; D is for Data. Or is it datum?; E is for Eighty Litres of Water in an Orange; F is for Ferruginous Pochard; G is for Going, Going, Gone?; H is for Heroes; I is for Industrial Revolution; J is ro Jigsaw Puzzles; K is for (Everything including the) Kitchen Sink; L is for Life itself; M is for Microbeads; N is for Namedropping