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Your toothpaste, facial scrub, or body wash may be clogging waterways with tiny plastic particles – without you even realizing it. One bottle of facial cleanser may contain as many as 300,000 plastic microbeads, which are used to help exfoliate and cleanse the skin. While these beads are harmless to human health when used as part of a beauty regimen, once they’re flushed down the drain, they can end up in local waterways where they attract toxins and end up in the bellies of wildlife.

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In an interview with Leonard Lopate of WNYC, Sherri Mason, an Associate Professor of Chemistry at SUNY Fredonia explained exactly why these microbeads are so hard to clean out of waterways. Ranging from 4 micrometers to 1.2 millimeters in size, many of these particles are visible to the naked eye, but also small enough that they’re difficult to detect in bodies of water. They often end up suspended in the water that enters waste management systems, so they neither sink into the sediment at the bottom, nor rise to the top where they can be skimmed off.

Even worse is the fact that once these plastic beads enter the environment, they’re drawn to living material within waterways. They stick to the plants, where they’re eaten by fish and birds. Often, cleaning these microbeads from the area would require uprooting the main sources of food for local species — so it’s impossible to remove them without disrupting an entire ecosystem.

This plastic soaks up chemicals in the water like a sponge, which is bad news when it’s consumed by fish. Like mercury, these pollutants can bioaccumulate and make their way up the food chain, resulting in high concentrations of toxins in larger organisms. Some of them even drift out to sea and end up floating in massive patches of waste, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Rolf Halden, Director of the Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University claims that the main reason companies use these plastic beads instead of more sustainable alternatives is because they’re so flexible and cheap. It’s easier to make them a uniform size and shape than natural alternatives.

Some companies are starting to phase these microbeads out of their products, but unfortunately, that doesn’t have any impact on the millions of plastic beads already present in the environment. Because these plastics are not biodegradable, they’ll persist in waterways for years to come — and it’s unclear exactly how much of an environmental risk they pose long-term.

Customers who want to avoid microbeads can take a few different approaches. Look for “polyethylene” and “polypropylene” on labels: these are the names of the plastics used to create these beads. There’s even an app to help you identify products containing microplastics if you’re a smartphone user. Don’t be fooled by products that claim to contain biodegradable plastics, because these may simply contain beads which break apart into even smaller pieces of plastic when they wash down the drain. If you really need the scrubbing power of those tiny beads, consider using scrubs with natural exfoliants instead, like cocoa beans, apricot seeds, or sea salt.

Via The Leonard Lopate Show