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Why Britain may ban microbeads

Environmentalists say the tiny microbeads found in shower gel are moving into the water supply and endangering aquatic life, leading some lawmakers around the world to suggest a ban on the plastic beads.

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    This Sept. 5, 2006, photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a tagged bearded seal in Kotzebue, Alaska. Environmentalists say the tiny microbeads found in shower gel are moving into the water supply and endangering aquatic life, leading some lawmakers around the world to suggest a ban on the plastic beads.
    Michael Cameron/NOAA Fisheries Service/AP
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A single microbead is roughly the size of the period at the end of this sentence, so small a person could wash about 100,000 of them down the drain in a single morning shower.

But on Wednesday, the BBC reported, the environmental committee in the British Parliament called for a worldwide ban on their production and use. 

This is the latest move to decrease the world's supply of microbeads, which research increasingly shows are unobtrusively entering the world's water supply with dangerous consequences for aquatic life.

"Trillions of tiny pieces of plastic are accumulating in the world’s oceans, lakes and estuaries, harming marine life and entering the food chain," said Mary Creagh, chairwoman of the Environmental Audit Committee. "A single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean."

When cosmetic companies began mixing the tiny, plastic beads into soaps and face washes to help exfoliate dead skin several years ago, they seemed harmless enough. But as the microbeads proliferated, so did research suggesting they could hurt marine life. The cosmetic industry decided to phase out the microbeads by 2020, but the British environmental committee wants to move the deadline up to 2017.

“Cosmetic companies’ voluntary approach to phasing out plastic microbeads simply won’t wash," Ms. Creagh said. "We need a full legal ban."

If such a ban passed, it would parallel a US law signed by President Obama in December. The law, which achieved bipartisan support after three years of work and several models in individual states, requires cosmetic companies to phase out microbeads in cleansers by July 2017, and urges companies to develop biodegradable or nontoxic alternatives.

Although not the only plastic problem for the world's oceans, the small, uniform size and hardness lets the microbeads escape easily down the drain, through the tiny nets of water filters, and into rivers and oceans. There, many fish, oysters, and even tiny zooplankton can ingest the beads, which can lodge in the animals' digestive systems and stop them from eating real food.

The momentum against microbeads was aided by the nearly uniform research on the topic, as the UN Environmental Assembly called plastic pollution "emerging" issue for oceans that cost $13 billion in damage worldwide. 

Canada also banned the manufacture and sale of products containing microbeads earlier in 2015 after its own government concluded that banning the microbeads was a simple solution to a massive problem. 

“Microbeads can have an adverse impact on the environment so I am proud that our government is taking decisive action to stop the release of this toxic substance into our waters,” Leona Aglukkaq, Canada's Minister of the Environment, said in a statement.

Some British lawmakers are now working to follow this example and answer concerns about how much the ubiquitous cosmetic ingredient is affecting the safety of fish – and humans.

"An average plate of oysters could contain up to 50 plastic particles," Tamara Galloway, a professor of marine ecology at Exeter University told the BBC. "We don’t have any evidence yet for the harm this might cause but most people would probably prefer not to be eating microbeads with their food.”

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