Plastic Microbead Trash from Oceans to Great Lakes
Hurting Birds, Marine Life — and Humans?
© 2014 by Linda Moulton Howe
“We can show that the chemicals are adhering to the plastic.
We can show that organisms eat the plastic. We can show the chemicals
then desorb into the organism that affects the health of THAT organism!”
- Sherri Mason, Ph.D., Assoc. Prof. of Chemistry, SUNY - Fredonia, NY
More than a million Laysan Albatrosses (Tournefortia argentea) live on the Midway Atoll
National Wildlife Refuge in the middle of the Pacific Ocean administered by the
Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Above are albatross chicks amid plastic garbage
accumulating on Midway and sadly being eaten by and hurting the albatrosses. Once
home to the Midway Naval Air Station, Midway is now a U. S. Minor Outlying
Island only 2.4 square miles in size positioned 3,200 miles (5,200 km) west of
San Francisco and 2,500 miles (4,100 km) east of Tokyo. Image © 2008 by U. S. Navy.
May 29, 2014 Los Angeles, California, and Fredonia, New York - The Earth has five major ocean gyres where the water swirls around and around and floating trash from humanity collects in those swirls creating great garbage patches in the North and South Atlantic Ocean; the North and South Pacific Ocean; and the Indian Ocean.
Map of 5 major ocean swirling gyres on Earth by NOAA.
Beyond the five great ocean gyres where the Pacific Ocean gyre has the largest garbage patch about twice the size of Texas, scientists have also discovered a great garbage patch expanding in Lake Erie of the Great Lakes. But it's not only junk waste you can see with your eyes. The lake water is filling with tiny micro-plastic balls less than 5mm in size, almost translucent making them look like microplankton and fish eggs to some marine life. Where do the millions of microbeads come from? Human facial scrubs and toothpastes and other personal care products.
Political Momentum Building
to Ban Microbeads from Products
May 26, 2014, CBS MoneyWatch.com.
On Friday, May 23rd, the California State Assembly voted in favor of a ban on microbeads, joining similar debates in the New York and Illinois legislatures. It's another health versus money issue. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, microbeads are now used to make 200 different consumer products and that Americans now purchase every year cosmetics containing over a half-million pounds of microbeads. Just one tube of a facial scrub can contain hundreds of thousands of plastic microbeads.
Fish and other creatures eat these microbeads that don't break down in their digestive tracts. The plastic microbeads adsorb toxic chemicals such as PCBs on their surfaces that leech into the bodies of marine life that eat them. Recent studies in Lake Erie have found microplastic levels higher than in the Pacific Ocean gyre and scientists are afraid that Lake Ontario at the end of the Great Lakes chain of once-fresh water could now be as bad or worse. That investigation is upcoming and spearheaded by the 5 Gyres Institute in Los Angeles in collaboration with the Environmental Sciences Program at the State University of New York in Fredonia. Marcus Eriksen is the Director of Research at the 5 Gyres Institute and told me about the shock he had on Midway Island that provoked him to want to get plastic trash out of the Earth's waters.
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Marcus Eriksen, Ph.D., Director of Research, 5 Gyres Institute, Los Angeles, California: “Back in 2,000, I had this opportunity to go visit Midway Atoll. It’s an island half way between California and Japan. It’s called Midway because it’s mid way in the ocean and it’s where the Battle of Midway happened. The island is home to thousands of albatross. These beautiful birds with a 7-foot-wingspan. You expect to find a few skeletons lying around. I was there with fourteen students, who were doing like a science education expedition. But every single bird carcass that I saw had a neat little pile of plastic inside of its chest — broken in fragments from buckets and crates and cigarette lighters and bottle caps. Everything in plastic you might see on a mainland was inside these birds!
Bird filled with plastic. Photo courtesy of Simple Green Living.
And that launched my career to try to understand: Where is this stuff coming from? What is it doing to other life? And what is it doing to us? And most importantly, what can we do about it that’s good for the environment and good for our economy? Because all the plastic that has been lost to sea in the last half century, a lot of it is still there and the birds are eating it. Once people know, once they are aware of the true fate of their trash, they want to make a change.
THAT THE TRASH IS KILLING ANIMALS ON THE EARTH.
Exactly, and it has a long life after it leaves your hand. It does hit the ground and wash out to sea. It has this insidious life and impacts other organisms around the world.
DO YOU HAVE HARD MEDICAL EVIDENCE FROM ANY PEOPLE WHO ARE STUDYING BIRDS AND MARINE LIFE ABOUT WHETHER THE PLASTIC INGESTION ITSELF IS SPECIFICALLY KILLING THE BIRDS EARLIER THAN THEY WOULD HAVE DIED?
There is a lot of evidence that if the plastic is ingested by these birds that it does cause them to be less fit because they have so much plastic in their guts. They retain it for a long time. And what happens is the birds think they are full and they are not. Also, plastic can cause lacerations and punctures in their stomachs and pre-stomachs called the proventriculus. That makes them weak. They lose their fat tissues, lose their energy, lose their will to eat more and there is a higher mortality rate in fledgling chicks that eat plastic than those that don’t.”
Great Garbage Patch in Lake Erie, Great Lakes
2010 great garbage patch in Lake Erie, Great Lakes.
Working with Marcus Eriksen and the 5 Gyres Institute is one scientist, who has been at the forefront of plastic pollution research in freshwater ecosystems — especially the Great Lakes. She is Sherri Mason, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Chemistry and Program Coordinator for Environmental Sciences at the State University of New York College At Fradonia, New York.
There, Prof. Mason is only two miles from the shores of Lake Erie in the Great Lakes where in 2012, she confirmed extremely high counts of plastic microbeads from human products such as facial scrubs and toothpaste are filling up the Great Lakes and oceans with negative consequences for marine life and ultimately humans that eat marine life.
The density of microplastics found on Lake Superior’s surface averaged roughly 2,400 particles per square kilometer. More than that, Lake Erie’s surface had the highest density, averaging somewhere around 80,000 particles of microplastic per km2. Lake Erie’s watershed has the most people and industry of the Great Lakes and this could help account for its higher numbers of plastic particles.
Sherri Mason, Ph.D., Assoc. Prof. of Chemistry in the Environmental Sciences
Program Coordinator at the State University New York in Fredonia, in 2012 while
investigating the density of plastic microbeads in the Great Lakes.
Sherri A. Mason, Ph.D., Associate Prof. of Chemistry, Environmental Sciences Program Coordinator, Sustainability Coordinator, SUNY, Fredonia, New York: “The most intriguing kind of results from the 2012 study was the high counts that were related to these microbeads between one-third and one millimeters in size. These tiny little round plastic beads that were coming from these consumer products.
Millions of plastic microbeads from human products such as facial scrubs and
toothpaste are filling up the Great Lakes and oceans with negative consequences
for marine life and ultimately humans that eat marine life.
The density of microplastics
found on Lake Superior’s surface averaged roughly 2,400 particles per square kilometer.
More than that, Lake Erie’s surface had the highest density, averaging somewhere
around 80,000 particles of microplastic per km2. Lake Erie’s watershed has
the most people and industry of the Great Lakes and this could help account
for its higher numbers of plastic particles.
WHAT DAMAGE CAN THESE MICROBEADS DO?
They are synthetic plastics. They are manufactured ultimately from by-products that are associated with petroleum production. And the thing with synthetic plastics is that they don’t biodegrade. There are very few organisms on the planet that are able to biodegrade plastics. As a consequence, the lifetime for plastics has been estimated to be anywhere from 500 to a thousand years.
Yes, so they just don’t go away. They exist in the water supplies for a very long time. The issues with that aren’t really the plastics themselves, but the chemicals that are either embedded within the plastics or will absorb onto the surfaces of the plastics as they stay in the water. Probably the most well known of these chemicals is BPA.
[ Editor's Note: Wikipedia - BPA Bisphenol A is a carbon-based synthetic compound that has been commercial since 1957 to make plastics malleable. BPA is used to make certain plastics such as water bottles, sports equipment, CDs, and DVDs. BPA is also used to make epoxy resins in water pipes, as coatings on the inside of many food and beverage cans and in making sales receipt thermal paper. BPA mimics hormone-like properties and now the FDA has ended its authorization of the use of BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula.]
BPA are chemicals that are used in order to make the plastics malleable in order to manufacture products. They are incorporated into the mixtures, but they are not chemically bound. The problem with that then is they can migrate out of the plastic and into organisms. Chemicals that are within the water can adsorb onto the surface of the plastic. I already know that this is happening with the Great Lake plastics. The Great Lakes are infamous for their industrial heritage. We know that they are harbingers of toxic compounds — things like PHs and PCBs — and we have found these chemicals adhere to the surfaces of the plastics that we pulled out of the Great Lakes.
So then the concern is that you’ve got these tiny plastic particles that are harbingers for very toxic chemicals and they are about the same size and they look like fish eggs. So our concern is they are being ingested by organisms that live in the water and then acting to remove these chemicals from the water into the organism.
INSIDE OF ORGANISMS, WHAT DAMAGE CAN THEY DO?
Some of the chemicals are known to be carcinogens. The biggest concern with things like BPA is that they are endocrine disrupters. I assume this is a bigger concern because a carcinogen or a toxin might immediately kill the fish or organism. The bigger concern is these chemicals that don’t do immediate damage, but it’s much more of a subtle long-term damage that they do. So they disrupt hormones and do things like infertility, a change in the gender of the organism. There are records of fish, for example, going from a male to a female gender. The results from that kind of cascade. In humans, for example, when there is an earlier onset of puberty in girls that means that later in life, they are more prone to breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
Toxic Impacts On Human Health
There are certain things we know are happening in the human population. We know that human male sperm counts are going down. We know that increases in breast cancer or ovarian cancer are increasing. The same with prostate cancer. There is a higher increase in ADHD with autism [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder].
We know that these things are happening in the human population and what we’re finding more and more is that these things are being linked to synthetic chemicals in the environment. So, basically plastics may provide just an additional way for synthetic chemicals to make their way from bodies of water into aquatic organisms and then move up the trophic levels into humans.
WE’RE EATING THE CREATURES THAT ARE INGESTING ALL OF THESE MICROPLASTIC BEADS. IS THERE A PAPER TRAIL OF SCIENCE AND MEDICAL EVIDENCE THAT LINKS DIRECTLY BETWEEN THE MICROBEAD TO HARD EVIDENCE THAT IT HAS CAUSED ‘X’ PROBLEM IN HUMANS?
A lot of products in our personal care products have not been tested for human human health impact.
Personal care products are governed under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which was written in 1976, that has not been updated since then. At the time it was written, a grandfather clause did 50,000 chemicals that were already on the market. And we’ve produced tens of thousands of products since then on the market and they have not been tested for human health impacts. Each one of us — we’re all walking chemical experiments!
We can show that the chemicals are adhering to the plastic. We can show that organisms eat the plastic. We can show the chemicals then desorb into the organism that affects the health of THAT organism!
That’s been done recently by Chelsea Rochman out in UC Davis (veterinarian medicine and NOAA Marine Debris program); and Richard Thompson’s (marine biology) lab in England (Plymouth University). They’ve been showing that when these chemicals desorb into an organism that are coming from the plastics, they are affecting the metabolism and the health of that organism — not necessarily leading to death, but affecting its ability to survive. Then that can move up the food chain.
We have to look at organisms like frogs and mice. These organisms that are used in laboratories, they are Indicator Species of what is ahead of us as humans. So if it’s having an impact on say a fish, or a frog, then we know that if you scale up, it’s having an impact on humans.
There are certain chemicals that have been used in these studies because they are well known. Triclosan is in a lot of our anti-bacterial soaps. Facial washes and toothpaste that says it’s going to last 12 hours contains Triclosan. The Environmental Working Group has put together a great data base called Skin Deep, where you can get an App for your phone and you can look up products as you are in a grocery store and find out about the chemicals that are in them and the environmental issues associated with those chemicals.
New York and California Trying
to Ban Microbeads from Products
WHAT IS YOUR PERSPECTIVE ON THE EFFORTS NOW IN NEW YORK AND CALIFORNIA TO TRY TO BAN MICROBEADS FROM A LOT OF PRODUCTS?
I think this is exactly what needs to be happening and I applaud both of these state governments and understanding the impact that something as simple as a face wash can have on our global ecosystem. I think this is exactly what needs to be happening. You don’t have to wait for legislation! You don’t have to wait for these companies to remove the microbeads. There are products when you go to the store today, you can choose to buy St. Ives apricot scrub instead of another product that contains microbeads because you know that these products don’t contain microbeads. They contain natural exfoliants — things like oatmeal, salt and sugar, cocoa beans, walnut husks. There is a very different variety of things that can be used to naturally exfoliate the skin. You don’t have to be using plastic!
IF WE CAN’T CLEAN UP THE LAKES AND RIVERS AND OCEAN WATERS OF THESE MICROBEADS THAT ARE PLASTIC, WHAT IS THE WORST CASE FROM YOUR POINT OF VIEW AS A SCIENTIST, WHO IS VERY CONCERNED ABOUT THE MENTAL AND PHYSICAL CONSEQUENCES ON HUMANS?
(laughs) Oh, that’s a big question! Where we’re going from here, it’s almost like Brave New World. You’re talking about a society that has difficulty reproducing, that has affected our chemical make up in such a way that you can’t go back. The problem with that is are our species actually going to be able to survive?”
See: Great Pacific Garbage Patch.