What are microbeads?
Microbeads, or microspheres as some companies call them, are tiny polyethylene plastic beads measuring up to 1mm (10 um to 1000 um). They have been somewhat unknown to the general public, but they can be found in many households across the country.
The seemingly harmless little beads are sometimes used in medical research; but most worryingly, can also be found in cosmetics like nail varnish and foundation, and in body care products such as the abrasive agent in scrubs and toothpaste. Plastic particle water pollution is starting to come to light as a serious hazard that has been overlooked in the past.
A US professor of chemistry and her team carried out research on the Great Lakes over the last two years, concluding that Lake Ontario contains 1.1 million microbeads per square kilometre.
The report went viral, and with it the unsettling awareness that this worldwide problem has gone undetected for many years. Focus on the larger debris littering our waters has meant scientists have neglected to realise the dense concentration of these tiny particles, and their ability to pass straight through the filters of sewage and water-treatment systems has helped them to go unnoticed.
Why are they an environmental concern?
- Microbeads don’t biodegrade, so once they are present in the water, they are there to stay.
- They look similar to fish eggs when they are floating around, meaning they often mistakenly become fish food.
- The surface of the beads attracts hazardous chemicals such as nonylphenol and cancer-causing PCBs.
- The major worry is: these toxins may be passed up through the food chain and eventually cause diseases in not only marine-life and animals, but in humans too.
- The particles can be so miniscule they are able to pass through stomach and lung linings, be transported by the blood, and accumulate in vital organs.
What are the big companies doing about it?
Companies who use these plastic beads in their products have largely vowed to start phasing them out.
Boots announced they have already stopped formulating new products with the plastic ingredient; Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and Marks & Spencer have target dates for their complete removal; Superdrug and numerous other companies have also stated they are in the process of eradicating the beads from their ranges.
What can you do?
While the commercial brands start work on reducing the hazardous pollutant from their products, consumers can also be doing their bit to aid the campaign, including:
- Checking ingredients lists and avoid buying any plastic-containing products. If you currently have products containing the beads, pass the substance through a fine cloth or nylon tights, and dispose of the plastic with your household rubbish. This is by no means ideal, but will at least prevent them from being washed away into open water.
- Buy natural products, or even make your own. Effective exfoliating agents can be made from sugar, crushed walnut shells and ground beans; many recipes can be found online and created from the contents of the kitchen cupboard and fridge.
- Spread awareness that this issue exists using word of mouth and social media. The hazards of this toxic waste need to be highlighted and kept at the forefront in order to preserve our environment and health, and as our duty to future generations.