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Microbeads In Everyday Products Damages Ecosystems

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Microbeads are added to many personal-hygiene products, but their primary purpose is adding color. Photo by Emily Braun.

Tiny parts of personal-hygiene products are turning out to be a big problem for the environment.

Microbeads, which are plastic fragments made from synthetic polymers, are commonly found in face washes, toothpastes and soaps. The pollution starts when they are rinsed down the drain.

“The challenge we have is a lot of these products are going on the market,”Alachua County Environmental Protection Director Chris Bird said. “But the review to look at what the impact is on the environment and whether water treatment plants can remove these things is lagging…not just on the federal level but the state level.”

A recent study published in Environmental Science and Technology found that 8 trillion of these microbeads enter U.S. aquatic habitats every day.

However, this is only where approximately 1 percent of the daily microbeads go. The other estimated 99 percent, or 800 trillion microbeads, enter wastewater treatment facilities.

The microbeads aren’t regulated yet, but as far as drinking water is concerned, Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) does not specifically test for microbeads.

“They do test for a variety of pollutants, including pharmaceuticals, which we have not detected in our drinking supply,” said Patrick Donges, GRU marketing and communications specialist.

“We are aware of microbeads as a potential concern, and we will address it if it becomes an issue,” Donges said.

As far as human consumption, there is no threat yet. But there is evidence that microbeads could be causing problems for marine life.

Chelsea Rochman, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, and the lead author of the study, said these microbeads were found in the stomachs of the animals they studied, among many types of microplastics.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) is examining the effects that might occur when humans consume the animals that consumed these microbeads. It is also looking at the impact on marine life itself.

This is especially true in Florida.

​​”We’re very close to sea level here [in Florida],” said Allison Vitt, the University of Florida Office of Sustainability outreach and communications coordinator. “So we have that added potential to really impact our water system.”

“I think that it’s even more important for Floridians to be aware that this is an issue, and to really educate themselves on what they can do to help be a part of the solution and not part of the problem,” she said.

The pollution can be prevented, or at least slowed, if people choose products that have the same desired cleanliness effect minus the microbeads.

Micaela Gibbs, an associate professor in the UF College of Dentistry, said as far as toothpaste is concerned, “There are many toothpastes that don’t contain these beads that are still very effective.”

“The beads are primarily for added color,” Gibbs said. “Really, the most critical part of the equation is using a toothpaste that includes fluoride and actually brushing, flossing and having good oral hygiene.”

Both Gibbs and Vitt said with research and added attention to product labels, people can choose similar products that are more environmentally friendly and still get the job done. Cutting down on use of these products could prevent pollution from escalating in the future.

 

About Emily Braun

Emily is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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