Just as I had blogged about a few weeks ago - article from the front page of the oldest continuously published newspaper in America - The honorable Hartford Courant
HARTFORD - They may be in your toothpaste, soap and makeup: tiny plastic balls called "microbeads" that environmentalists warn are washing down your drains and end up damaging marine life in sensitive ecosystems like Long Island Sound.
Some Connecticut lawmakers would like to follow the lead of several other states that have already banned the sale of products containing microbeads, and will be taking testimony on the controversy plastic product at a legislative hearing Wednesday.
"This is part of a larger effort to reduce the tremendous amount of plastic going into our environment," said Louis Burch, spokesman for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
Many personal care products contain tiny plastic "microbeads." (EarthTalk / TNS)
There are also questions about the impact microbeads can have on human health. Last fall, a number of dentists around the nation warned the little plastic balls being used to color some brands of toothpaste could be getting stuck between teeth and gums, trapping bacteria and causing disease.
Several major corporations, including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble (makers of Crest toothpaste), have either already removed microbeads from their products or are planning to phase out their use. According to Procter & Gamble officials, microbeads were added to Crest products to enhance the color of the toothpaste.
Rep. James Albis, an East Haven Democrat and co-chair of the legislature's Environment Committee, said there appears to be bipartisan and even corporate support for the proposed ban. "The only thing I've heard from the industry has been positive," Albis said.
The hearing is scheduled to begin at the Legislative Office Building at 1 p.m. Wednesday.
A key problem is that these tiny pieces of plastic, also called "polyethylene microspheres," are less than a millimeter across – so small that sewage treatment plants can't process them out of waste water. The size of fish eggs, the microbeads are virtually indestructible and are mistaken for food by many marine organisms. When eaten, they can damage fish and creatures like coral, and work their way up through the eco-system.
Burch said that, no matter where researchers have looked, "they have found micro-plastics in every major waterway in the world."
One recent study in Lake Ontario found more than one million pieces of micro-plastic per square kilometer, according to Burch. Federal experts say cosmetic and toothpaste are only one source of micro-plastic in the environment, and that larger plastic debris often breaks down into tiny bits similar in size to microbeads.
There hasn't been any significant research done on microbeads in Long Island Sound, but Connecticut environmentalists and legislators like Albis have no doubt they are collecting in the Sound.
Albis said he expects Connecticut consumers of toothpastes and cosmetics and "exfoliant" soaps are using the same sort of products as consumers around the Great Lakes where numerous studies have confirmed microbead pollution.
"I imagine the results would be similar for Long Island Sound," Albis said.
"We can say with confidence that this is having an impact in Long Island Sound," agreed Burch.
Dennis Schain, spokesman for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said officials in his agency believe "there is increasing evidence that microbeads… threaten and damage natural resources and aquatic life." He said agency officials plan to work with lawmakers "to address this issue."
Last year, Illinois lawmakers approved a ban on various exfoliating face wash and body products, to be phased out starting in 2017 and completely prohibited by 2019. States including New York, California, Ohio, and Colorado are also considering microbead bans or strict regulation.
A report by the New York State Attorney General's Office estimated that as much as 19 tons of micro-plastics are being released into that state's waterways each year.
In Australia, a new study found evidence that living coral consume micro-plastics at startling rates and that the plastic substances can damage the coral's digestive systems. One Great Lakes research effort reported that microbeads were found in fish being caught for human consumption.
Industry officials say microbeads originally became popular in exfoliant scrubbing and body wash products.
Officials at Unilever, which has offices and a manufacturing facility in Connecticut, said their company has removed all plastic scrub beads from its personal care products as of January 2015.
Procter & Gamble Co. officials said the bits of micro-plastic were also added to a number of its Crest toothpastes, such as Crest 3D White and Crest Pro-Health, to provide more color and visual appeal. The company announced in September that it is phasing out the use of microbeads from all its toothpaste products and expected that operation to be completed by March 2016.
The statement by the Crest manufacturer noted that microbeads have been approved as safe for use in foods by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
One of the bills now being considered by the Connecticut General Assembly would, if approved by lawmakers, take effect in January 2016 and prohibit the sale of any product containing microbeads as of January 1, 2017.
Some companies, including Koster Keunen (with factories in Connecticut and the Netherlands) say they have developed non-plastic microbeads from plant-based wax.
But Burch calls the idea of plant-based microbeads "something of a red herring." He said many such products will only break down in direct sunlight and heat, which wouldn't happen in a normal marine environment. He said plant-based beads would continue to pose ecological problems.