Eight Trillion Microbeads Pollute U.S. Waterways Each Day: Study

Each day, as many as eight trillion tiny plastic microbeads are finding their way into America's lakes and rivers, setting the stage for a growing pollution crisis that many consumers don't know they have a hand in.

Microbeads are one of the most insidious forms of pollution, as the Washington Post points out. Commonly added to a wide array of products as an exfoliant and to introduce a "scrubbing action," microbeads may be out of sight after they wash away down your drain, but they most certainly do not go away.

According to a new study published in Environmental Science & Technology, which examined the widespread impact of microbeads, as many as eight trillion of these tiny plastic particles are entering aquatic habitats in the United States each day. To put it into perspective, that number represents enough microbeads to cover 300 tennis courts, as CNN points out.

Astonishingly, the study also argues that the true number could actually be much higher, as the eight trillion microbeads cited by researchers represents only one percent of the number that are actually being dumped over the course of each day. As many as 800 trillion microbeads find their way into sludgy runoff from sewage plants, which means they could also potentially end up in waterways.

The study calls for a ban on plastic microbeads, and such policies have been proposed or enacted in some locales already. Earlier this month, California successfully passed a measure banning microbeads, and other states are following suit. Illinois and Indiana have enacted bans on microbeads in the past, as have several other states.

One of the most dangerous aspects of plastic microbeads is the fact that they don't biodegrade, and instead simply pile up over time in waterways. The Great Lakes have notoriously been negatively impacted by the tiny plastic particles, and according to Chelsea Rochman of the University of California, Davis (who was also lead author of the recent study) microbeads have been found repeatedly inside the digestive tracts of marine animals.
"We've demonstrated in previous studies that microplastic of the same type, size and shape as many microbeads can transfer contaminants to animals and cause toxic effects. We argue that the scientific evidence regarding microplastic supports legislation calling for a removal of plastic microbeads from personal care products."
Public support for a total ban on microbeads is widespread and growing, and many companies have voluntarily decided to phase out the use of microplastics in their products. Consumers who are interested in doing their part can find lists of products that don't include microbeads online, while several organizations they can support are committed to stopping the spread of microbead pollution worldwide.

[Photo by gentlemanrook via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0]