Microbead Pollution: Another Great Reason to Re-Visit Your Soap Habits

I’ve mentioned before on this site about how my interests in greening up my life started with soap.  Basically, I realized that I would massively reduce my dependence upon chemicals and chemical production, upon plastics, and upon the transportation (or petroleum) needed to ship what are essentially bottles of water all across the nation if I simply made my own solid soap (or bought natural soap from a local artisan).

As it turns out, if you’re using one of the massively popular body washes that include ‘microbeads’, you don’t have to buy bar soap from a hippie to significantly green up your soap routine.  Just switch to a body wash without the beads.

Microbeads suspended in commercial body wash.

Microbeads suspended in commercial body wash.

Guess what those little beads are?  Plastic.  And, as Christopher Johnson’s article in the latest Scientific American shows, our water treatment facilities can’t filter out those tiny little plastic ‘microexfoliates’ from our waste water.  Right now, it’s a fairly prominent problem in the Great Lakes. Unfortunately, wildlife are eating these microbeads, which clearly have no nutritional value and can cause blockages in the fish and birds’ digestive systems.  This might seem like a fairly minor problem that would only inconvenience the individual animals unlucky enough to eat the plastic, but intestinal blockages can result in death, and malnourished wildlife has a huge impact on the entire ecological system.  Starvation has the potential to entire species within one or two generations, and when those species are the fodder for others, the malnourishment ratchets up the food chain pretty quickly.

Even more troubling, though, is the fact that the scientists studying this problem have determined that these little plastic particles essentially act as “solid oil” and can “absorb [environmental] chemicals like a sponge.”  This makes them a significant concern for the Great Lakes, since the number of industrial plants around them releases quite a bit polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which includes quite a number of dangerous compounds. These compounds then enter a fish or bird’s system when it eats the microbeads.  As we all know from past issues like DDT, this gets magnified up the food chain.  The fish’s body stores a lot more of those compounds, so when predators eat them, they get a higher ‘dose’ of the dangerous compounds.  In essence, what initially appears to be a minor, isolated problem can have major ecological ramifications.

What’s so sad about this entire problem is that there is, quite literally, NO reason to include microexfoliates in beauty products.  If a person washes themselves with soap and a washcloth or another scrubber, they will achieve a far better exfoliation than if they just used a microbead body wash.  Moreover, almost any other physical exfoliate in a solution is more effective than microbeads.  Salt and sugar scrubs will get the job done admirably, and their run-off can be handled by water treatment plants.  Other things like finely ground apricot kernels will essentially rot once they’re in a quantity of water–but even if they didn’t, they would still provide some nutrition to the fish and birds that would consume them AND they could be broken down by their digestive systems.

The answer is clear:  stop using microbead products!  And, frankly, I don’t think a few letters requesting that these products be pulled would go amiss either.  You can address your letters  to your local legislators, to the stores that carry these products, and to the producers who make them.

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