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State Legislature needs to back bill to eliminate microbeads

If more people understood the effects of the tiny plastic beads that they’re unwittingly rinsing down the drain, enough pressure would be applied to elected officials to make sure that beauty products are free from these harmful particles.

That’s the goal of New York Attorney Gen. Eric T. Schneiderman’s “Microbead-Free Waters Act.”

It would prohibit the distribution and sale of personal cosmetic products containing microbeads less than 5 millimeters in size. The bill struggled to find footing last year, unanimously passing the Assembly but failing to come up for vote in the Senate. Republican leaders need to take action. Perhaps new findings highlighting the failure of sewage plants to capture the dangerous beads will help.

The study, released by the attorney general appropriately during Earth Week, identified samples of treated wastewater still contaminated with the plastic microbeads that are in many beauty and personal care products. “Discharging Microbeads to Our Waters: An Examination of Wastewater Treatment Plants in New York” discovered microbeads in 74 percent of the samples from 34 municipal and private treatment plants across the state.

Six of the plants are in Western New York: 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 Lackawanna Wastewater Treatment Plant, and Niagara County Sewer District No. 1.

These treatment plants dump into Lake Erie, its tributaries or the Niagara River.

Microbeads are an insidious threat because they are not biodegradable. They persist in the environment, where they are eaten by fish and other wildlife, eventually working up through the food chain to become a potential hazard to humans. There’s also an economic impact to consider. Microbead pollution has the ability to undermine the billions of dollars of public and private investment in water-based economies around the Great Lakes and, in doing so, reverse the extensive progress that has been made in restoring the quality of the lakes.

Schneiderman’s bill is designed to stop microbeads from ever entering the waterways. Action toward this end has been taken in some states, including Illinois and New Jersey.

Ideally, the problem of microbead pollution would be addressed on the federal level. Given the state of Washington politics, that is unlikely, leaving states to deal with the issue. This week, as we focus on protecting the earth, the public and Legislature should resolve to eliminate this threat to the environment.