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Image via Attorney General Schneiderman Facebook

As tiny as they are, those plastic microbeads you find in your face and body washes are polluting New York waters in a significant way. Used as exfoliating abrasives in beauty products, the beads are a major threat to the state’s aquatic life and food supply. To address the threat posed by the common cosmetic substance, New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman introduced plans on Tuesday to protect the safety of surrounding waters with the Microbead-Free Waters Act. The act will ban the manufacturing, distribution and sale of personal care products with plastic particles that are less than 5 millimeters in size. If the legislation is passed, New York State would be the first in the nation to have a law prohibiting the materials in beauty products.

Image via 5gyres Facebook

According to a 2012 study, SUNY researchers evaluating plastic pollution in the Great Lakes discovered the highest concentrations of microbeads in the waters of Lake Erie. Microbeads, listed as “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” on a product’s ingredient deck, are found in more than 100 beauty products including facial scrubs, toothpaste, shampoo and soap.

Once rinsed down the drain, the insidious microbeads (which are also non-biodegradable) enter the sewer system and are discharged into lakes, oceans and rivers where they absorb other toxic pollutants.  The perilous pollution cycle intensifies when the beads are eaten by smaller fish and animals mistake the plastic litter for food.

“When people learn more about this issue, they will be unwilling to sacrifice water quality just to continue to use products with plastic microbeads. I never met anyone who has wanted plastic on their face or in their fish,” said Robert K. Sweeney, Chairman of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee.

Several beauty industry giants including Proctor and Gamble, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson and The Body Shop have already made commitments to phase out the use of microbeads in their products by as early as 2015.

Consumers can scan their products for microbeads by downloading “Beat the MicroBead app to their smartphones.

+ Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman