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Attorney general’s study reports ‘microbead’ pollution is pervasive in state waterways

Samples of treated wastewater, including those taken from six Western New York plants, show that plastic “microbeads” washed down sink and shower drains are passing straight through the facilities and into area waterways.

That’s according to a first-of-its-kind study that is being released Monday by State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

The study details where these tiny plastic abrasives found in many cosmetics products are coming from, why they’re slipping through wastewater-treatment plants, and the extent of the problem statewide.

Schneiderman said the state collected data from water coming from wastewater plants and found that microbeads are present in nearly three-quarters of those surveyed. Those that didn’t are small-volume treatment plants equipped with specialized filters that catch and collect the microbeads before they passed through the system.

“Today’s report confirms that from Lake Erie to Long Island Sound, microbeads, a harmful form of plastic pollution, are finding their way into waterways across New York State,” Schneiderman said. “New York has been at the forefront of national progress when it comes to combating plastic pollution, and we need to continue this leadership by preventing microbeads from contaminating our waterways, and threatening the health of both New Yorkers and their environment.”

Samples were taken from 34 wastewater plants statewide, and microbeads were found in 25 of them.

Six treatment plants in Western New York were sampled, including in the Village of Silver Creek; the Town of Grand Island; Erie County’s Southtowns Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Woodlawn, Big Sister Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in the Town of Evans and its Lackawanna Wastewater Treatment Plant; as well as Niagara County Sewer District No. 1.

They all discharge into either Lake Erie, its tributaries or the Niagara River, and microbeads were found in water samples from all of them.

“We just don’t have the technology now to remove … these new products that we never anticipated,” said Patricia Cerro-Reehil, executive director of the state Water Environment Association based in Syracuse. “These plants were simply not designed for this.”

Sherri “Sam” Mason, an environmental sciences professor at SUNY Fredonia who supervised the state’s study, said that what Schneiderman’s office accomplished was getting access to a statistically significant number of the nearly 600 wastewater-treatment plants across the state. That allowed environmental scientists to prove their theory that microbeads were washed down the drain and were passing through wastewater plants into lakes, streams and rivers across the region and the state.

“It gives us a better perspective,” said Mason, a leading national expert in microbead pollution, who first proved the presence of the microscopic plastic particles in the Great Lakes in 2012 and 2013 studies. Mason learned that the highest concentrations of microbeads were found in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

Mason and Cerro-Reehil say the attorney general’s report should help provide a renewed push for legislation in New York – and federally – to ban products containing microbeads.

“It seems like a no-brainer,” Cerro-Reehil said.

Mason added: “I’ve yet to meet a person who learns there’s plastic in their face wash that says, ‘I must wash my face with plastic.’ ”

Natural alternatives to plastic such as ground nut husks exist, but those tend to be more expensive. The states of Illinois and New Jersey have already banned microbeads, and other states are considering similar measures. A proposal to ban microplastics in New York last year failed to reach the floor of the State Legislature.

“It’s not cost-effective to think you’re going to change every single wastewater-treatment plant facility in the entire country in order to remove these microbeads,” Mason said in emphasizing the need for pre-emptive bans.

Even with microfiltration devices in place at smaller wastewater plants in the New York City watershed that have been shown to catch the tiny plastic particles, experts said, it’s likely that they would be reintroduced into the environment farther down the line, starting the process all over again.

“The most cost-effective way to get rid of microbeads,” Mason said, “is to stop them from getting into the waterway to begin with.”