hen Julie Larson of Trash Free
Maryland showed me her jar of Bay
water that she had collected with [the
organization] 5 Gyres by trawling in the
Bay, I was nauseated. The water was
muddy brown and littered with tiny, colorful specks of plastic, strewn like bright
Christmas lights throughout the jar.
What are they?
Plastic microbeads are either polyethylene
or polypropylene plastic between 50-500
micrometers (1/20th to one-half a millimeter). They’re used as hypo-allergenic scrubbing components in thousands of personal
care products, such as facial scrubs and
toothpastes. A single product can contain
350,000 of these microbeads. Often, they
are washed down our drains and pass
unfazed through our sewage treatment systems into the Bay.
Most of these plastic microbeads are not
biodegradable in the typical sense of the
word. Even those whose manufacturers
claim they biodegrade often require high
heat processing to break down, which typ-
ical municipal sewage systems are unable
to do. Plastic microbeads have been found
in all oceanic gyres [rotating ocean cur-
rents], bays, gulfs, and seas worldwide.
Why Are They Dangerous?
Along with the simple accumulation of
these plastics in the Chesapeake waters,
they can also be ingested by small fish, oysters, and clams and end up on the dinner
plates of the seafood consumers in our
region. I’d venture to guess that nobody
wants to have a serving of plastic confetti
with their oysters.
Beyond the unsightliness of these
microbeads in seafood, they also come
with an invisible helping of toxins collected from the Bay waters. Known toxins
such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs),
which represent 60 percent of the toxins in
certain parts of the Bay, are attracted to
these plastic microbeads, making them
potentially dangerous to human health as
well. Exposure to PCBs has been associated with immune-system dysfunction,
low-birth-weight babies, liver toxicity, and
skin conditions such as chloracne.
What is Being Done?
Last year, scientists and legislators in
Illinois, recognizing the unacceptable risk
that plastic microbeads posed to Lake
Michigan and the people who live around
it, made Illinois the first state to ban the
manufacture and sale of microbead-con-
taining products over a five-year timeline.
The Maryland General Assembly banned
the beads this year. And, over twenty states
and the U.S. Congress are now considering
similar legislation to ban them.
The personal care product industry has
agreed to phase out the use of plastic
microbeads in their products, but is pushing for an extended timeline, given their
claim that they need time to get approval
from the Food and Drug Adminstration for
new over-the-counter formulations that
contain alternatives to plastic microbeads.
Groups like Plastic Soup Foundation and
the North Sea Foundation have been monitoring the status of personal care products
that still contain plastic microbeads. (For
an updated list of offensive products,
visit http:// beatthemicrobead.org.)
With environmental groups, the public
health community, and the personal care
products industry aligned on the dangers
of plastic microbeads, we are hopefully
coming to a common understanding that
stopping these beads from entering our
waterways will prevent unneeded dangers
to our Bay and the people who cherish it.
Dr. Richard Bruno is a
resident physician in family
and preventive medicine
at MedStar Health and
Johns Hopkins University.
When microbeads enter the aquatic
environment, they are considered a form of
microplastic debris that also includes small
plastic particles that result from the breakdown of bottles and other plastic containers.
Can’t Bead It:
Plastic Microbeads are Affecting Our Bay
By Dr. Richard Bruno