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Tiny plastic pollutant poses a threat to health of the Great Lakes ecosystem

As if the Great Lakes aren’t already threatened enough by pollutants, now tiny microbeads found in more than 100 consumer products are compounding the risk.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s proposed legislation is aimed at eliminating microbeads from products and thus the ecosystem. For the benefit to the Great Lakes and in particular Lake Erie, where alarmingly high levels were found, the bill should win fast support.

The Microbead-Free Waters Act would ban the distribution, sale or manufacture in New York of beauty and other personal care products that contain plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size. These plastic bits are found in facial scrubs, soaps, shampoo and toothpaste, where they replace ground walnut shells, sea salt and other natural materials as an abrasive.

The beads are not biodegradable and therefore remain in the environment, where they accumulate toxic chemicals on their surfaces. They are a threat to fish, wildlife and, as the ecosystem chain goes, humans. The harm takes place after products containing microbeads are used in the home, and then rinsed down the drain and through the sewer systems. These tiny particles are buoyant and thus often discharged into rivers, lakes and oceans.

It gets dangerous when small fish and other wildlife mistake these microbeads for food and ingest them and the attached toxic chemicals. The toxins can be passed from small animals to larger ones to humans.

A couple of years ago, a team of researchers that included scientists from the State University of New York at Fredonia discovered alarming levels of microbeads in the Great Lakes.

Environmental awareness has increased over the years and this nation has come a long way since the years before the Clean Water Act of 1972 when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River actually caught fire. Still, there is much more to be done in terms of environmental safety and the safeguarding of the economic gems that are the Great Lakes.

Microbead pollution, as Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper said, has the potential to undermine the billions of dollars of public and private investment in our water-based economies while negatively impacting the progress of Great Lakes restoration.

Some companies, such as Burt’s Bees, have never used these plastics in their products. Consumers who want to make more-informed purchasing decisions should check the product ingredient list for “polyethylene” or “polypropylene,” and steer away from those products.

Schneiderman’s office said four manufacturers – Proctor and Gamble, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive and most recently L’Oreal – have agreed to phase out microbeads. Good for them. The rest of the users should also take that pledge without waiting for the legislation, because it’s the environmentally sound thing to do.