Plastic microbead contamination

February 1, 2014

Brushing our teeth each morning and evening is a routine that we all follow without thinking about what is in the toothpaste we buy at the drugstore. We carefully brush, rinse and spit that toothpaste down the drain. More and more of us wash our hands with liquid hand soaps and disinfectants, and care for our skin with facial products that exfoliate and cleanse our faces with tiny beads that remove dead skin cells and reveal a sparkling and refreshed new us. Inside many personal care products that help clean and rejuvenate us are plastic microbeads –some of the beads are only fractions of a millimeter long – that provide the friction to clean our teeth and skin. While we may glisten after washing, the dangerously bad news is that these beads don't dissolve in water. Ever.

They are designed to wash down the drain. Which means they then make their way into the water treatment system and eventually into our lakes and streams where they remain. No one knows for how long. There, they absorb and retain other chemical contaminants. 

Because these plastic microbeads are so tiny, to fish and other water creatures, they mimic food organisms, and they eat them. There, the pellets and the contaminants get passed up the food chain, back to us. But instead of landing on our faces as scrubs and cleansers, they end up on our plates. And they likely are in our drinking water. 

For those at risk of health problems, the contaminants add further dangers because they can alter the genetic makeup of aquatic organisms, resulting in either death or deformities. People with weakened immune systems, including children, pregnant women and the elderly, can develop more serious problems both from ingesting contaminated fish as well as water with contaminants.

Researchers have found plastic microbeads from personal care products in all of the Great Lakes, except for Lake Superior, where its remoteness has preserved its water quality, at least for now.

Jon Allan, director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Office of the Great Lakes, said the the issue of microparticles “has emerged very recently. We have to be vigilant with the Great Lakes. It's not something that was around years ago. It's not a static picture and it's changing routinely. We have to make progress on existing particles as well as new emerging contaminants. It's a community effort of state and local health officials' efforts to make sure local residents are drinking safe, healthy water.”

Plastic microbeads were first discovered in the Great Lakes in 2012 when a New York environmental chemist had a hunch they may be there after numerous studies documented the presence of large amounts of plastic in the world's oceans. “If we find it in the oceans, we're probably going to find it in the Great Lakes,” said Sherri (Sam) Mason, associate professor of chemistry at SUNY Fredonia of her supposition that the particles would be found in these waterways.

Of the plastics collected during their 2012 and 2013 research, about 80 percent of the pieces were less than one millimeter in size, and most of them were spherical, suggesting they were released into the environment as pellets. What's more, Mason said, many of them were the same size and color – including white, blue, green, or orange-red – as the small beads used in a number of personal care products. They are tiny pellets that are not found, or mimicked, anywhere in nature. But to fish and other aquatic creatures, they are small particles that look like food and are easily ingested.

Besides fish from the Great Lakes, which we may enjoy as lunch or dinner, how else is this representative of a possible danger to all of us? Our drinking water comes from Lake Huron and the Detroit River, both of which have shown levels of contamination. The question remains, what comes through our taps after processing at water treatment plants?

Many of us in Oakland County receive water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which notes that their drinking water meets or surpasses all federal and state drinking water standards. Residents living in southern Oakland County, including Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township, Beverly Hills, Bingham Farms, Royal Oak, and Southfield, receive water distributed by the Southeastern Oakland County Water Authority (SOCWA), which provides Detroit water through its member distribution systems.

“We test our water at least once a week at 50 different locations,” said Jeff McKeen, general manager of SOCWA. “Detroit (Water and Sewerage) tests continuously at points of production.”

He noted that there are very small amounts of toothpaste and facial scrubs and other personal care products in our drinking water. “The EPA and Detroit Water and Sewerage Department have done some testing, but I don't think it's much of a concern.” 

The consensus is that our drinking water is contaminated, with trace amounts of chemicals filtering through the Detroit Water and Sewerage wastewater treatment plants, which takes water from the Great Lakes and rivers, as well as sewage, and treats them. 

“Chemicals have been in our water for a long time. It's just now that we're able to detect them in extremely small quantities,” noted Mary Lynn Semegen, water quality manager at Detroit Water and Sewerage. 

Richard Benzie, Community Drinking Water Department director for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said the EPA has a process where they develop a candidate list of possible dangerous contaminants for future regulatory action. “It's a multi-year process of toxicological studies, where they are researching animal and/or human studies on their exposures. It can take 10 to 15 years from the time it pops up to recognize its dangers and its presence,” he said.

Semegen said that 2007 is the most recent study the department did with the EPA, which was its first phase, and while it was not published, Detroit Water and Sewerage is currently working on phase two. 

“The EPA asked us to do samples of contaminants at the southwest water treatment plant in Detroit for raw river water and for treated water,” she said. “They were looking at 85 different chemical compounds, and only found two in the treated water, and in levels that are so small that even if you drank it for a lifetime, you wouldn't have enough for a full dose.” 

Semegen said they were looking for personal care products; endocrine disrupters; pharmaceutical products; caffeine; acetaminophen; dilantin, an anti-convulsant drug; warfarin, an anti-coagulant; Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical in certain plastics which has been shown to have hormone-like properties; camphor; and perchlorate, which is found in jet fuel. BPA and camphor, used in some ethnic cooking, perfumes and aromatherapy, medicines, like Vick's Vaporub and anti-itch gels, hairsprays and deodorants were found. Benzie noted that perchlorate has been found, and they're determining if it should be regulated and at what levels. 

“Perchlorate is being fast tracked. It's been found a lot in the water near military bases and airports,” Benzie said. “It's also common in some food and in beer. It's not easy to remove from water in treatment because it's voluble. It can be dangerous to the fetus of a pregnant woman and to the development of the thyroid. It's a difficult decision. When they make a decision to go regulate something, they have two years to determine the regulations.”

“BPA is now ubiquitous in the environment, so it's not surprising (it was detected). But once it went through treatment, it was reduced tenfold,” Semegen said, noting it received no special removal treatment. 

BPA was investigated in 2008, and in 2010, the FDA identified it as a possible hazard to fetuses, infants and young children. BPA has been removed from baby bottles, sippy cups and reusable water bottles, but it remains pervasive in the water supply.

Semegen said that BPA was found in the water system at 233 parts per trillion untreated; but at 27 parts per trillion treated. “That's extremely low levels,” she said. “It's detected in nanograms per liter or parts per trillion. Figure it as one drop in a trillion other drops.”

For emerging contaminants, which is the classification personal care products falls into, the EPA has placed them in the unregulated contaminant program, which Benzie said is currently in its third round of testing. “They check them every five years or so. They take different contaminants and chemicals, and set standards nationwide,” he explained. “They want to sample them quarterly nationwide, three months apart from water systems, or twice yearly from groundwater, and then determine if it's worth monitoring, or if their presence is ubiquitous.”

Any public water supply with a population greater than 10,000 people has to perform the monitoring, he said.

Benzie also said that individual states have the authority to determine to what extent they want to be involved in testing contaminants. “Michigan makes sure the EPA has the right contacts and the right sampling points identified to oversee all of the other monitoring,” he said.

“Beginning in October 2014, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is getting ready to do some sampling under the Unregulated Contaminants Monitoring Rule on endocrine disrupters, or hormones, in the water supply,” Semegen said. They will do the monitoring for a year in order to see if there are chemicals present that the EPA may want to regulate in the future.

The EPA uses the Unregulated Contaminants Monitoring Rule program to collect data on chemicals and contaminants that are suspected of being present in drinking water but do not yet have health-based standards set under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

So what is in our drinking water, and is it safe to consume? According to SOCWA, there are limits on the amounts of certain contaminants in the water in all public water systems, but there are some. Drinking water, including bottled water, can contain at least small amounts of some contaminants. “The presence of contaminants does not necessarily indicate that water poses a health risk,” their website states. 

The sources of our Oakland County drinking water includes rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, reservoirs, springs and wells. As water travels over the surface of the land or through the ground, it does dissolve some naturally-occurring minerals, SOCWA points out, and can pick up other substances from the presence of animals or from human activity. 

Contaminants that can be picked up include microbial contaminants, such as viruses and bacteria, which may come from sewage treatment plants, septic systems, agricultural livestock operations and wildlife. “A big problem comes from failing septic systems,” said Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash. “Coliform and other things that make you sick can get into the surface water and people who live close to septic systems have issues because of high water tables. When there's a failure, it happens quick.”

Other contaminants, such as salts and minerals, can be naturally occurring or can be the result of urban storm runoff, industrial or domestic wastewater discharges, oil and gas production, mining or farming. Pesticides and herbicides, from agricultural and residential uses, also pose a danger to the water supply. Organic chemical contaminants and radioactive contaminants can be caused naturally or from oil or gas stations, from urban storm water runoff, or from failing septic tanks.

And now, there is the danger of personal care products.

“Most of our sewage and storm water pollutants are pulled out at our water treatment centers,” said Nash. “But tiny granules are another story. Toothpaste can cause buildups that no screenings can prevent. We can get sandbars of granules from toothpaste.”

In terms of the tiny microbeads in surface water in Oakland County, Nash responded, “It happens. It's there.”

That must mean we're ingesting tiny plastic microbeads when we drink tap water. While it's not a reason to stop drinking our municipal water, which is considered some of the best in the country, why it's there and how to get rid of them is something to look at. And that's by examining the pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, and how and why they are utilizing these products.

In efforts to beautify the public, some contend that the beauty industry has helped pollute the waters of the earth. Some manufacturers use traditional biodegradable exfoliators such as coconut husk. But that product is more costly than plastic, which is cheap, plentiful and cost effective. 

It does appear that several personal care product makers are looking to phase out these products after pressure from the Plastic Soup Foundation, a Netherlands-based environmental group that seeks to curb the amount of plastic in the ocean. 

“I believe microbeads in things like face scrubs may be banned. Companies are certainly beginning to remove them,” noted Semegen.

Initially, Johnson & Johnson stated, “To date, the science shows that microbeads from personal care cleansers are removed in wastewater treatment systems.” However, science disproved that, and they recently put out another statement announcing a phaseout of the plastic microbeads from their beauty and baby care products. 

“We want our beauty and baby care products to reflect consumers' current and future needs so they will always have complete peace of mind when using our products.” The company has said it is assessing the environmental safety of a “promising alternative” to the tiny beads. They are aiming for a full elimination of microbeads in their products globally no later than 2017.

Unilever, whose personal care brands include Vaseline, St. Ives, Pond's, Alberto VO5, and other hair and skincare products, announced it too would phase out the plastic beads used in those products worldwide by 2015. While doing so, they still fought the evidence, saying in a statement, “The amount of plastic in the marine environment thought to originate from the use of plastic scrub beads in personal care products is considered to be limited compared to other sources.” 

L'Oreal is another company which has announced they will be phasing out their use of microbeads. For them, it is a public relations necessity – the corporation owns The Body Shop, a brand of personal care products which markets itself as socially and environmentally conscious. Testing has ascertained that microbeads were found in some of The Body Shop products.

L'Oreal said that “it is committed to ensuring that all of our products have the best-in-class environmental profile.” They said they conduct research on the impacts of its items on aquatic ecosystems and said they will not develop any new products using plastic microbeads as exfoliants and “the company favors substituting them in its existing formulae whenever possible.”

When you go to choose a personal care product, how do you know if a product you may want to use has included one of these environmentally toxic beads? Check the ingredient listing. If there is the word “polyethylene”, reject the item for another one with a more natural scrubbing particle, such as coconut husks, ground peach pits, or borax. 

So ultimately, can you drink the water in Oakland County? The answer remains yes. It's safe by all standards, is tested weekly at numerous sites throughout the county, as well as by the city of Detroit.

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