The New York-New Jersey harbor estuary is currently overflowing with toxin-soaked plastic microbeads – the “blue spherical beads” found in personal care products such as face or body cleansers – according to a new study by NY/NJ Baykeeper.
The study found that at least 165 million plastic particles are floating on or near the surface of the waters around New York City and the Jersey Bayshore.
These microbeads absorb the toxins, such as pesticides of industrial waste, that are already present in the water. Often, fish or other marine life will mistake the plastic fragments for food, allowing the toxins to seep into their flesh.
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Although there is little data, scientists fear that these dangerous chemicals could be transferred up the food chain to humans.
“We are beginning to see evidence of just how prevalent plastic pollution is in our waters,” Dave Conover, executive director of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, said in a statement. “Plastic trash and debris, along with microplastics, are contaminating fish, birds, mammals, even plankton.”
New York City and state officials have issued advisories warning children and women of childbearing age not to eat any fish caught in the waters around New York City.
According to USA Today, Baykeeper trawled 18 different locations and found that if the harbor was divided into football field-sized blocks, an average of 1,500 microbeads would be found in each section.
“It just goes to show you big problems need big solutions,” Sandra Meola, a spokeswoman for Baykeeper said.
These numbers doubled in New York waters – possibly due to the differences in population density – although the study’s authors caution against drawing too many conclusions from the first set of data.
According to AP, Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, said reducing plastics and other waste is a priority for the administration.
President Barack Obama signed a nationwide ban on microbeads on December 28, marking a victory for water quality advocates. Although Obama’s nationwide ban doesn’t take products containing the beads off store shelves until 2019, some counties surrounding New York and Jersey are taking the task and making it their own.
This Sunday, retailers in Erie County were forced to do away with all beauty and body products containing tiny, plastic beads from their shelves. According to the local ban, everything from toothpastes to facial scrubs must be removed.
“If the federal and state governments will not act, we, the residents of the Great Lakes representing local governments must act to protect our heritage and our future,” County Executive Mark Poloncarz told WBEN.
Poloncarz said he heard from lobbyists from Albany and Washington to reconsider, citing the interests of the retail industry, but said it is more important to protect a natural resource for the years to come.
“In the end it’s a balancing act,” Poloncarz told WBEN, “about what the retail industry believes in versus what we believe is in the best interest of our community.”
“This body took a position on the policy, and I think we should stand by that,” Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, who sponsored the microbead ban told Buffalo News.
Aside from microbeads, a considerable amount of the plastic present comes from other sources, such as disintegrated plastic grocery bags or generic plastic pellets that factories melt down to mold into products, reports USA Today.
Meola said the environmental organization intends to continue sampling the waters periodically, as soon as next month, to track the harbor’s pollution problem.
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“We’re going to have to deal with the consequences,” Meola said in a statement. “It’s plastic smog. It’s everywhere. It’s in all bodies of water across the globe.”
The study area stretches from the Tappan Zee Bridge south to the Sandy Hook Bay.
[Photo via Shutterstock]