Youthful Skin Versus the Ocean Food Web
by Sarah (Steve) Mosko
It’s time to eliminate plastic micro-bead exfoliants from consumer products.
The beauty industry hits hard on the importance of frequent exfoliation to keep skin looking young and healthy. To that end, spherical plastic micro-bead scrubbers, no larger than a half millimeter, have been introduced into hundreds of skin care products in recent decades. But scientists are discovering that the ocean food web, and maybe human health, could be imperiled as a result.
Photo (c) Shutterstock
As babies, our skin cells are replaced every two weeks, but by age fifty the turnover rate has slowed to six weeks or longer, fostering wrinkles and other unwelcome signs of aging. Products containing plastic micro-beads profess to speed up cell rejuvenation, and their popularity signals that consumers have bought into the promise of exfoliating their way to a more youthful look. Whether or not such products deliver on this promise, scientists have discovered that these innocent-looking plastic micro- beads are insidious little transporters of chemical pollutants into lakes, streams, and oceans and maybe onto our dinner plates.
Micro-beads are usually made of polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP) and, like other plastics, they’re thought to persist in the environment for a hundred years or more. They’re added to facial scrubs, body washes, soap bars, toothpastes, and even sunscreens and designed to be washed down the drain. However, micro-beads commonly escape waste treatment plants and pollute bodies of water, because the plants aren’t designed to eliminate them or because wastewater is diverted directly to local waterways in heavier rains.
“Microplastics” are defined as plastic debris smaller than five millimeters and include both manufactured micro-beads and the breakdown products of larger plastic waste, which fragments into progressively smaller bits during exposure to sunlight and other environmental forces.
The Santa Monica, California-based non-profit 5 Gyres Institute is studying the impact of micro-beads and other microplastics on aquatic environments and found that a single tube of facial cleanser can contain over three hundred million micro-beads.
In a study published last year in Marine Pollution Bulletin, 5 Gyres reported that the surface waters of the Great Lakes averaged forty-three thousand microplastic particles per square kilometer: Many were tiny spheres matching those in personal care products. Micro-bead density was as high as six hundred thousand per square kilometer in one sample. Lead author Marcus Erickson has also informally sampled the LA River and found an abundance of plastic micro-beads there too. These startling findings add to a growing body of evidence that microplastics are building up in all bays, gulfs, and seas worldwide.
In early June of 2014, a group from the 5 Gyres Institute set sail for the North Atlantic Subtropical gyre and the Sub Polar “Viking Gyre,” from Bermuda to Iceland, to study plastic pollution. Co-founder and research director Dr. Marcus Eriksen was joined by thirteen professional sailors, scientists, advocates, artists, filmmakers, photographers, and journalists.
“5 Gyres is on the frontier of oceanic plastic pollution, conducting first-hand research to discover garbage patches around the world,” Eriksen said in a statement. “We’re working to both understand and communicate more about how plastics affect the ocean ecosystem, which brings us to monitor remote seas, like the area south of Iceland. These waters are where microplastics, including the micro-beads we found in the Great Lakes, likely find their final resting place. We’re going there to find out.”
Plastic debris of any size represents a dual chemical threat to aquatic environments, both from noxious chemicals manufactured into them (like bisphenol-A and phthalates) and because plastics are lipophilic, meaning oily pollutants found in water environments are attracted to and adhere to their surfaces. As early as 2001, for example, scientists discovered that virgin pellets of PP exposed to coastal Japanese sea waters adsorbed toxic chemicals, like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and a breakdown product of the banned pesticide DDT, up to a million times their concentration in the surrounding water. Other risky chemicals, including flame retardants, have since been added to the list of pollutants associated with marine plastics.
Consequently, plastic debris ingested by sea creatures has become a potential threat to the ocean food chain, and scientists have already documented the ingestion of plastics by many fish species as well as marine creatures as small as barnacles and as large as whales. Over half of sea turtles found dead have ingested plastic. Studies are also emerging documenting the bioaccumulation of chemical pollutants in fish and other animal tissues when plastics are ingested. For microplastics, this threat is magnified by their small volume, which means greater relative surface area to which pollutants can adhere.
Recent research suggests that micro-beads are among the very worst offenders expressly because they are made of PE or PP. A research team led by Chelsea Rochman at U.C. Davis deployed various types of mass-produced plastics into San Diego Bay for up to a year and found that, compared to other polymers, PE and PP soaked up higher concentrations of measured pollutants: PCBs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
In a particularly disturbing follow-up study published in Scientific Reports in 2013, Rochman and colleagues observed liver toxicity in fish attributable to pollutants picked up from San Diego Bay when, for two months, the fish diet contained ground up PE previously deployed in the bay. Such findings notch up the concern that human health could also be impacted by plastics accumulating in the ocean food web.
According to Plastics Europe, an industry association, global plastics production reached two hundred and eighty-eight million metric tons in 2012 and is projected to continue its rise. Oceans cover seventy-one percent of the earth’s surface (roughly one hundred and forty million square miles) with an average depth of over two-and-a-half miles. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that there are already forty-six thousand pieces of plastic per square mile of ocean, distributed on the surface and sea floor and throughout the water column. The plastic burden of the Pacific Ocean alone is thought to total eighteen million tons.
Given the ocean’s vastness, there is no practical or impractical means to remove the existing plastic pollution. The idea of somehow filtering out all the microplastic debris is doubly absurd.
The only rational solution is to stem the inflow of further plastic pollution. For micro-beads, the means of accomplishing this is straightforward. Industry must eliminate plastic micro-beads from all products and replace them with biodegradable alternatives, like apricot pits, cocoa beans, walnut shells, dried coconut, or salt.
The group 5 Gyres is spearheading a global Beat the Micro-Bead campaign to both urge consumers to read product labels and pressure retailers and manufacturers to eliminate plastic micro-beads. So far, the list of corporations that have promised to voluntarily reformulate their products without plastic micro-beads includes Johnson and Johnson, Unilever, The Body Shop, L’Oréal, Colgate-Palmolive, Beiersdorf, and Proctor & Gamble. None has yet delivered.
Some governments, including those in a handful of U.S. states, might not wait for industry to act. On June 8 of 2014, the governor of Illinois signed a bill banning plastic micro-beads starting in 2017, and similar legislation has been introduced in Minnesota, New York, and Ohio. In California, a prohibition on the sale of “microplastics” in personal care products by 2019 passed the State Assembly on May 23, 2014.
[Micro-beads in consumer products have been banned in both Canada and Britain as of January, 2018. ~Editor]
Plastic micro-beads are used for maybe a minute before they’re mindlessly washed down the drain, exemplifying a consumer society paying little attention to the makeup or fate of its waste. The fact that micro-beads might come back to haunt us via our dinner plates is food for thought.
Sarah (Steve) Mosko is a sleep disorders specialist and researcher who also writes about contemporary environmental and animal rights issues. You can visit www.BoogieGreen.com to read more of these articles.