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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Microbeads in the Great Lakes

Air Date: Week of

The majority of the plastic that Mason and her team found in the Great Lakes were tiny pieces called microplastics. (Photo: 5 Gyres)

Microbeads are tiny plastic spheres found in facial scrubs and other cosmetics, but sewage treatment doesn't remove them from the water, so they end up in lakes and streams. As Kara Holsopple of the Allegheny Front reported in 2104, they are a hazard to fish and to anyone who might eat lake-caught fish.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

In honor of Earth Month we are looking back at some of our favorite stories and bringing you an update. We commonly think of fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil, and coal, as having a long-term impact on the environment as they are burned and release the global warming gas carbon dioxide into the air. But those fossil fuels are also the principal feedstock for plastics, and these can persist in the environment for years as well. So today, we have a story from 2014 about plastic microbeads making their way into the Great Lakes. These tiny bits of plastic can be found in skin care products like facial scrubs and exfoliants, and are so small, water treatment plants don't remove them. Kara Holsopple from the public radio program The Allegheny Front had the story.

HOLSOPPLE: Salon owner Marla Degenhart is enjoying a hand massage with a creamy French vanilla scrub.


DEGENHART: That’s awesome. [LAUGHS] It feels great. Very scrubby, and it’s also a little more exfoliating than the oatmeal.

HOLSOPPLE: Degenhart makes the homemade scrubs herself for her Lunasea salon and spa in Pittsburgh.

DEGENHART: Everything that I use, every ingredient that I use is biodegradable. I’m very earth-conscious. I’ve been like a hippie my whole life. I don’t look like one, but I think like one. [LAUGHS]

HOLSOPPLE: Degenhart adds oatmeal, fine pumice, and even ground up walnut shells to her exfoliating masks and cleansers.

These natural skin care products are the kind that Dr. Sherri Mason says she’d like to see more of. She’s from the State University of New York at Fredonia. Mason’s been pulling an ingredient in the commercial version of cosmetic scrubs out of the Great Lakes by the thousands - microplastics.

MASON: About 60 percent of the microplastics we found were these perfectly round, spherical balls. And those definitely don’t come from the degradation of larger plastic items.

HOLSOPPLE: They come from face washes and cosmetics with small, colorful plastic beads - microbeads - that do the job of exfoliating skin. Mason and her team have been trawling the Great Lakes by boat for the last two summers, looking for plastic. Their work is the first study of plastics pollution within the Great Lakes, and one of the first on freshwater plastics pollution.

Half of the plastic in oceans are microplastics--pieces about 1 to 5 millimeters. In the Great Lakes, it’s 80 percent - most of it in Lake Erie.

Many of us think of plastic pollution as an eyesore--plastic cups and bottles floating near the beach. But little plastic pieces make their way into the Great Lakes first as those larger plastic items like bags or cups - trash that gets washed through storm drains. Then they get broken down by sun, wind, and water. In the case of microbeads, they come through municipal sewers. Mason says finding that so many of these microplastics were little beads was a surprise. And they could be creating big problems for wildlife.

MASON: They essentially look like fish eggs. They look like food. The biggest concern is the possible ingestion of these microplastics by aquatic organisms.

HOLSOPPLE: Mason says similar ocean studies show they are eaten by birds and fish--they’re so small even mussels and plankton - at the bottom of the food chain - can eat them. The plastics prevent wildlife from digesting real food, and that can kill them. But that’s not the only issue. Mason says the Great Lakes were once a dumping ground, and even though pollution is more regulated now, some chemicals are persistent. Plastics found during Mason’s study had elevated levels of industrial chemicals like PCBs. Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis with Women for a Healthy Environment explains why.

NACCARATI-CHAPKIS: Those dangerous chemicals can essentially bind to plastics.

HOLSOPPLE: Her Pittsburgh-based group’s been reaching out to other environmental groups in the Great Lakes region, asking them to put pressure on retailers to stop carrying products which contain hazardous chemicals. They’re worried about chemicals which can’t be removed through water treatment. Naccarati-Chapkis says it bioaccumulates; the fish eat these toxic-coated plastics and then we eat the fish.

NACCARATI-CHAPKIS: So we know that it works up the food chain and as a result will impact human health as well.

HOLSOPPLE: Naccarati-Chapkis, Sherri Mason and others say that eating fish from the Great Lakes - where commercial fishing is an important industry--could be dangerous because the toxins in the plastics the fish ingest could leach into their flesh that we eat as food.

CURWOOD: That 2014 report from Kara Holsopple came to us courtesy of the public radio program the Allegheny Front.



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