Why Those Tiny Microbeads In Soap May Pose Problem For Great Lakes The plastic beads in some face soaps look a lot like fish food when they end up in the water. Two states are close to banning the beads, which researchers say can spread toxins through the food chain.
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Why Those Tiny Microbeads In Soap May Pose Problem For Great Lakes

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Why Those Tiny Microbeads In Soap May Pose Problem For Great Lakes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we'll report on products that pollute the ocean, even though they clean your skin. Exfoliants contain an ingredient that end up in the water. Those hygiene products include tiny bits of plastic called microbeads. New York is moving to ban microbeads for the sake of the Atlantic. Illinois is moving to ban them to protect the Great Lakes.

We find NPR's Cheryl Corley at the edge of one.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: I'm standing at the shoreline of North Avenue Beach, one of the many beaches in Chicago that line up along Lake Michigan. It's sunny, windy and the water looks gorgeous.

JENNIFER CADDICK: Sort of a blue-emerald colored water stretching as far as the eye can see and really sort of shows the majesty and the hugeness of the Great Lakes.

CORLEY: Jennifer Caddick, with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says beneath that pristine image though, is a nearly invisible threat for the Lakes that contain more than 20 percent of the world's fresh water.

CADDICK: And it was a bigger problem than we initially had thought.

CORLEY: Because tiny bits of plastic are showing up in the Great Lakes. Dr. Sheri Mason, an associate chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia sailed with a research team over the last couple of years to collect data. They dragged a fine mesh net in the waters at half hour intervals to snag what they could.

DR. SHERI MASON: We catch anything that's bigger than a third of a millimeter.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAVY PIER MUSIC)

CORLEY: When the boat docked at Chicago's noisy Navy Pier last summer, Mason showed off the sample bottles of microbeads she and her team collected in Lake Michigan.

That's very tiny.

MASON: That is very tiny.

CORLEY: Yeah.

MASON: Yeah. And that's the stuff we pick up, so it's really, really small.

CORLEY: Mason says her testing found on average17,000 bits of tiny plastic items per square kilometer in Lake Michigan. It was much lower in Lakes Huron and Superior, but Lakes Erie and Ontario had much higher concentrations. Lake Ontario at the top with counts up to one point one million plastic particles per square kilometer. Mason says while microbeads in facial cleansers and body washes may be pretty good for removing dead skin cells, here's the rub.

MASON: They are about the same size as fish eggs, which means that, essentially, they look like food. To any organism that lives in the water, they are food. And so our concern is that, essentially, they are making their way into the food web.

CORLEY: And if fish eat microbeads which can soak up toxins like a sponge, scientists suggest those chemicals could be passed on to humans and wildlife. So after collaborating with groups like 5 Gyres - that fight against plastic pollution in waterways, state lawmakers in Illinois and New York are among the first to approve legislation that bans microbeads.

Illinois State Senator Heather Steans represents a district along Chicago's lakefront.

STATE SENATOR HEATHER STEANS: Obviously, protecting the lake is hugely fundamental, not just to my district, but to the whole system of Chicago. We've got an agreed to bill now that will ban the manufacture of these by 2017 and the distribution of them in the state by 2018.

CORLEY: And in New York, manufacturers would have until December of next year to phase out products with microbeads. Senator Steans says until the Illinois ban is fully approved, consumers should just look at labels.

STEANS: If they have polyethylene or polypropylene on the labels, that indicates there's plastic in them. Sometimes on the front of the labels it will say microbeads as well.

CORLEY: While environmental groups and lawmakers are behind the measure, so are some companies in the personal care industry.

KAREN ROSS: We worked on this bill extensively, we think it's a positive first step.

CORLEY: Karin Ross, a spokesperson for the Personal Care Products Council, says L'Oreal, Johnson and Johnson and Proctor and Gamble have already announced they're phasing out the use of microbeads and are testing alternatives like sand and apricot seeds. Even so, Jared Teutsch with the Alliance for the Great Lakes says he had hoped for a quicker ban.

JARED TEUTSCH: There's still urgency there and we'd like to see companies move faster than that deadline and we hope they will.

CORLEY: In addition to the pending legislation in Illinois and New York, there are bills targeting microbeads in Minnesota, Ohio and California too. In the meantime, researcher, Dr. Mason, says people who have facial scrubs with little plastic beads in their medicine cabinets should try one with a different abrasive like cocoa beans.

MASON: I'd much rather wash my face with chocolate than with plastic.

CORLEY: Mason says banning microbeads in consumer products is an important first step but there are many more plastic products that end up in waterways and there's a long way to go to get rid of them.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

INSKEEP: And you hear Cheryl right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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