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Unintended consequences are at it again. Who would have thought that the tiny microbeads added to facial cleansers, toothpastes, cosmetics, and the like could be a threat to marine ecosystems? They are barely visible, after all. But those beads act like magnets to toxic organic compounds, and they are ingested and work their way up the food chain to fish, birds, and maybe even us.

“If we don’t do something soon, microbeads are just going to keep accumulating in the oceans,” warned Hideshige Takada, a professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology.

Takada got a rude surprise when he conducted a study of Japanese anchovies pulled from Tokyo Bay in the summer of 2015. Of the 64 fish examined, eight had microbeads in their organs, his team found. “It was more than we expected,” he said.

Tokyo Bay is not the only body of water in Japan polluted with the tiny balls. Kyushu University Professor Atsuhiko Isobe pulled nets behind boats in 25 areas, including Tokyo Bay, Ise Bay, and the Seto Inland Sea. He found microbeads in nine of those places. “We can’t say much yet about the actual situation, but it seems that microbeads are broadly diffused in those regions,” Isobe said.

Microbeads are tiny plastic spheres of polyethylene, the same material used for grocery bags. Mostly smaller than 1mm in diameter, they are added to products such as toothpastes, soaps, and cosmetics to serve as a mild abrasive or an exfoliant to remove dead cells from the surface of the skin. A single tube of facial cleanser is said to contain tens of thousands of the beads.

When people wash their faces, or take baths, the microbeads go down the drain with the rest of the wastewater and enter the sewer system. Most are recovered at wastewater treatment plants. But when there are heavy rains or the sewer pipes overflow, the microbeads enter river systems and find their way to the ocean.

Once they make it to the sea, there is essentially no way to recover them. Degradation by bacteria and ultraviolet radiation takes so long that the microbeads simply accumulate in the water and on the ocean floor.

The tiny spheres are the same size as phytoplankton and turn up in zooplankton, seahorses, shellfish, shrimp, whales, and other sea life.

Juvenile fish that mistakenly feed on the beads can become malnourished, according to a study by Uppsala University in Sweden. This can hamper their development and make them too sluggish to escape predators.

Polyethylene itself is not very toxic, but the surface of the microbeads readily attracts polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), agrichemicals, and other toxic pollutants in the water.

One study found that killifish suffered liver dysfunction when fed microbeads coated with PCBs for three months.

The worry is that these microbeads can serve as a vehicle for concentrating pollutants up the food chain.

Many toothpaste products containt the little spheres.

Microbeads are scattered throughout the oceans of the world, including at the North and South poles. If they continue being released in growing amounts, toxic compounds will become increasingly concentrated inside fish, and the impact on humans and wild animals could become too serious to ignore.

The warning bells have not gone unheard, and steps are underway in some nations to limit the use of microbeads. The thinking is that it is better to take preventive steps even though no clear cause-and-effect relationships have been proven.

In the United States, legislation has been enacted to phase out and prohibit the use of microbeads as an additive in such products as facial cleansers. Certain states, including California and New York, have introduced their own stricter bans.

In the European Union, personal care association Cosmetics Europe has moved on its own to voluntarily cease the use of microbeads.

Meanwhile, the Japan Cosmetic Industry Association called on its roughly 1,100 member companies in March 2016 to quickly introduce measures of their own.

Japanese makers of cosmetics and care products such as soaps and toothpastes are hurrying to develop microbead alternatives.
Shiseido plans to switch over completely to the use of microbeads made from natural components such as cellulose by the end of 2018. And Kao said it will fully adopt alternatives by the end of this fiscal year.

In addition to degrading faster, microbeads made from natural materials have another advantage in that they do not grab hold of pollutants as readily as their plastic counterparts.
However, makers of cosmetics will have a harder time finding substitutes, because the microbeads they use are much smaller than those used in products such as cleansers.

Cosmetics companies use plastic beads measuring just 0.001mm to 0.05mm in size to give color and texture to their products. Beads this tiny are far harder to make using plant-derived bioplastics and other natural materials.

What impact these tiny cosmetics-use microbeads have on humans and on ecosystems remains unknown, and it is still not clear whether they need to be regulated.

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