Chemist Mason Says Microbeads Are a Major Threat

Sherri Mason is waging a war on body wash, or at least the kind with exfoliating microbeads.

Microbeads are the small, plastic orbs routinely found in cosmetics. They’re in hand soap, face wash, even toothpaste. Many brands market them as a selling point, the colorful beads visible evidence of a product’s exfoliating abilities.

But once someone is done scrubbing their face, those beads get washed down the drain. Mason, a chemistry professor at SUNY Fredonia, will speak at 12:15 p.m. July 26 in Smith Wilkes Hall about what that means for humans and wildlife.

Mason and her colleagues conducted a study in the summers of 2012 and 2013 that found the Great Lakes littered with those microbeads. A separate study found “8 trillion microbeads per day are emitted into aquatic habitats in the United States,” enough to cover more than 300 tennis courts.

People drink that water, and creatures such as fish and mussels breath it. Researchers discovered those beads tear up small animals’ digestive tracts to cause trouble eating or growing. The beads get passed up along the food chain as predators — including humans — eat other species.

The effects of those beads on the human body are not well understood. Microbeads serve as a vehicle for synthetic chemicals to enter the body, which Mason said “can cause all sorts of crazy.” Most of those chemicals are endocrine disruptors that mimic the hormone signals the brain uses to control the body.

What effect that has depends on the developmental stage of the person and the nature of the chemical they’re exposed to, but Mason said research links certain chemicals to different types of cancer, as well as ADHD and autism.

In the wake of those surveys, cosmetic giants such as Unilever and Johnson & Johnson came out against microbeads, and President Barack Obama recently signed a bill banning their production for use in cosmetics by July 2017. Unlike with many environmental concerns, the tide turned remarkably fast.

Mason can’t explain why that was the case — microbeads aren’t even the biggest source of plastic pollution. Plastic fragments, or little pieces broken off something larger, make up some three-fourths of the plastic littering waterways, to little fanfare.

What’s unique to those beads is how close they hit to home. About 35 million people live within the Great Lakes watershed, Mason said, and a threat to the place someone lives or vacations is more tangible than the Great Pacific garbage patch occasionally held up as the worst example of plastic pollution.

Most people can also remember a time before they exfoliated with bits of plastic. Mason suggested leaning on some nostalgia: Why would someone use plastic when they could use grandma’s sugar scrub?

Manufacturers using so many microbeads for such a trivial purpose could also be a sign of a problem with the plastics industry.

“I’m a chemist, I get it,” she said. “It’s an amazing material, but we’re just using it in frankly unintelligent ways. Why are we creating products that are used for minutes that will last lifetimes?”

Most studies have been conducted on major bodies of water such as the Great Lakes, but Mason said logic dictates Chautauqua Lake should share the same concerns at a time when “you can’t find water without plastic in it.”

“We haven’t looked specifically in Chautauqua Lake for plastics,” Mason said. “That being said, we looked at a lake in the middle of Mongolia and found plastic.”

Once it’s there, there’s not much to be done. Mason said efforts to remove the microbeads from waterways would also eliminate beneficial plant life and microorganisms.

Chautauqua’s wastewater treatment plant under construction on the south end of the grounds may help the problem, but Mason said those plants are designed to filter out human waste, not specific pollutants.

Instead, the important step is to stop discarding plastic waste. Time should take care of the rest.

“Nature is amazing at cleaning herself up,” Mason said. “She’s been doing it for four and a half billion years. She’ll survive. It’s really a matter of whether we will.”

Morgan Kinney

The author Morgan Kinney

Morgan Kinney is a Northwestern University journalism student who likes to explain things, particularly science. Read his Twitter thoughts @morgan_kinney.