Body wash is damaging the Great Lakes

3/15/2015

Lake Erie micro beads

Lake Erie Micro beads

It can be a luxurious feeling to apply a good skin cleanser to your face and feel the accumulated dirt, grime and oils wash away. But it turns out such seemingly innocent indulgence carries an unexpected environmental cost, particularly for those of us who live near the Great Lakes.

The unexpected culprits are micro beads, tiny plastic particles, often less than a millimeter in size, that are found in a wide variety of personal hygiene products — soaps, facial scrubs, even toothpaste. They’re great for exfoliating your skin, but as is too often the case with wondrous artificial ingredients, they’re damaging to the natural environment. Because they’re so tiny, they pass through waste water treatment systems and end up in rivers, lakes and oceans. They easily soak up existing toxins in the water and are consumed by fish and other aquatic organisms that mistake them for food.

A single container of a personal hygiene product can contain 300,000 micro beads, so not surprisingly they are present in the Great Lakes in staggering quantities. Researchers at the State University of New York, Fredonia, estimate that an average of 17,000 of the plastic particles are found per square kilometer in Lake Michigan. The numbers are lower in Lakes Superior and Huron but higher in Erie and Ontario, where the researchers put the plastic concentration there as high as 1.1 million per square kilometer.

Thankfully, both industry and government recognize the need for change. Three consumer-products giants, Johnson and Johnson, Procter and Gamble and Unilever, have said they plan to stop using micro beads in their personal hygiene products. Meanwhile, Illinois became the first state to ban micro beads last year and Indiana is on the verge of doing so as well.