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Plastic microbead contamination


By Lisa Brody
News Editor
New source of water contamination
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(click for larger version)
02/04/2014 - 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."

lastic 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.

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Tags: LONGFORM

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