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Gillibrand Urges Passage Of Legislation To Ban Microbeads

Standing near the shore of Lake Champlain, New York U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on Monday discussed legislation she has drafted to keep microbeads out of the nation’s waterways.

Mircrobeads are microscopic abrasive bits of plastic that are added to cosmetic products such as soaps, facial scrubs, body washes, hand cleansers and toothpaste. The material, often smaller than 1 millimeter, passes through the filters of wastewater treatment plants and is flushed into New York’s and the nation’s waterways.  

A report issued in April by the New York Attorney General’s office found that microbeads were present in 74 percent of water samples taken from 34 municipal and private treatment plants across the state. It estimated that up to 19 tons of plastic microbeads enter the state’s waters.

Senator Gillibrand noted that with legislation to ban microbeads being considered in multiple states, her Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 should be passed at the federal level.   “These plastic particles attract pollutants like PCBs already in the environment and concentrate them to very dangerous levels. Fish and birds eat them and they ingest all of the pollutants stuck onto the microbead. This disrupts the food chain.  It contaminates huge portions of the wildlife population. The evidence is clear. If left unstopped microbeads have the potential to cause significant ecological damage across our state. We have to remove microbeads from personal care products.”

Scientists and researchers call microbeads a serious and growing problem.
Lake Champlain Committee staff scientist Mike Winslow says for several years they have urged both New York and Vermont to ban microbeads. But both bills are stuck in committee. He says Gillibrand’s bill would provide a uniform national law.   “Scientists have found high concentrations of plastics in U.S. waterways wherever they’ve looked for them. There are numerous studies documenting the physical and toxicological effects of plastic in the environment. Plastics absorb toxins including PAH’s, PCB’s and DDT. Some microbeads are the size of fish eggs so they look like food to larger fish and other aquatic organisms. An all too literal junk food. There are plenty of effective soaps, toothpastes and body scrubs on the market that use natural substances as cleaning agents. Microbeads are an unnecessary additive.  Why use plastics?”  

Senator Gillibrand says technology has not been developed to capture particles as small as microbeads during the wastewater treatment process, so upgrading those facilities is not an option.   “It’s pretty standard across the United States that they can’t capture something so small. So what my bill does is it bans the microbeads period and it puts it on private industry to find replacements. This is not something we’ve had for decades and decades.  This is a fairly new technology that’s now appearing in our toothpastes.  And I’ve even heard that dentists are finding the microbeads in people’s cavities and under their gums and are urging their patients not to use those brands that use microbeads.  So this is a new thing that’s appearing in products over the last decade.  There are better products that are better for our rivers and streams and we should be urging the companies to replace them.”

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy signed on to the bill as a co-sponsor last week, according to his outreach coordinator Tom Berry, who says they are finding industry is willing to phase out the materials.  “Certainly when you have millions upon millions of small particles being introduced at the bottom of the food chain it’s a huge concern. It’s a new enough threat that I don’t think the science has been fully explored as to how these things will move up the food chain and concentrate toxins.  But there’s enough warning flares, and with the ban on these as ingredients in personal care products seems to very doable, it’s one of those rare occasions where we seem to be addressing the problem early on instead of worrying about cleaning it up later.”

Under Gillibrand’s legislation, microbeads would be phased out by 2018.