Is your soap harming sea life? Ban on microbeads gains momentum.

A growing number of lawmakers and researchers are calling for a ban on microbeads in personal-care products.

Image by 5Gyres, courtesy of Oregon State University
Microplastic poses a growing concern in oceans and other aquatic habitat.

Researchers say that the tiny microbeads - 1mm to 5mm orbs of plastic - often found in soap and toothpate are harmful to sea life. 

“We’ve demonstrated in previous studies that microplastic of the same type, size and shape as many microbeads can transfer contaminants to animals and cause toxic effects,” Chelsea Rochman, the David H. Smith Conservation Research Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California/Davis, said in a statement. “We argue that the scientific evidence regarding microplastic supports legislation calling for a removal of plastic microbeads from personal care products.”

According to the Michigan Watershed Council, consumers wash these miniscule bits of plastic down the drain by the ton each year, but because they are so small, they slip through water-treatment facilities and end up in larger bodies of water.

In August, Canada announced steps to “prohibit the manufacture, import, and sale of ‘personal-care’ products that contain them.” 

“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, Canadian minister of the environment, said in a statement regarding the issue.

The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Makers of toothpaste and facial scrubs have begun to respond to the growing backlash. Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive have stopped using microbeads; Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson say they will follow in 2017. Loblaws, Canada’s largest retailer, plans to remove them from its house brand. But these companies are also urging their governments to ban the use of microbeads by all manufacturers, according to The Economist.

The UN Environmental Assembly has estimated that the damage caused by microplastics in marine ecosystems costs around $13 billion annually. Researchers also estimate that approximately 90 percent of seabirds have ingested plastics, up from 5 percent in the 1960s, when research started. Seabirds and other marine animals commonly confuse the bright colors found in most plastics for food, yet it causes significant internal damage when ingested.   

In the US, California lawmakers voted this month to phase out the use of microbeads sold in personal-care products, beginning in the year 2020, a move which would reverse the state Senate’s previous opposition. The current approval will send the measure back to the state assembly for a final vote, before lawmakers adjourn for the year next week.

Both Republicans and Democrats voiced their approval for the AB888 bill. "This is going to wrap up a three-year process of working on this legislation," Sen. Ben Hueso (D), told the Associated Press. "I think this is monumental legislation.”

"The bottom line is we are accomplishing a very important thing here today," said California state Sen. Jeff Stone (R). "We're taking these microbeads and environmental impacts off the market.... But I hope we are preserving the ingenuity, the entrepreneurship of engineers and scientists that will come up with wonderful products that can help our youth address their acne issues."​

Six states — Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, Colorado, Indiana, and Maryland — have already enacted legislation to restrict the use of microbeads, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while bills are pending in others, including Michigan, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon, The New York Times reports.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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