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April 25 2016

Are Microbeads Really Bad?

Julie Gunlock

Environmentalists have long been on a tear about microbeads and their campaign to ban them has been successful. So successful, in fact, that late last year, President Obama banned the beads (effective in 2017)

Activists that promoted the restrictions on microbeads often say that banning microbeads will clean up the waterways and help marine life. Will it? It’s worth asking those questions, right? Especially before the government puts in place a regulation that will cost industry a significant amount of money in redesign costs.

Now Allen Burton, a professor of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, is asking just that—will banning microbeads do any good? Burton sites a new study on the issue:

At the University of Michigan, scientists have cut apart and examined 145 fish from Lakes Huron and Erie, where some of the highest levels of microplastics in the world have been reported. These represented the six species most likely to consume microplastics. Under the microscope, we examined the gut of each. Not one contained a microbead of plastic. Not one.

So, why aren’t they eating the microbeads? Allen explains that “there are very few microbeads in the water where fish feed. The very worst sites have only 1-3 microplastic particles for every 300-700 liters of water…”

Let’s think about that. The average bathtup holds about 80 liters of water so imagine 3 or four bath tubs worth of water with three microbeads floating in it. It’s not hard to imagine that a fish might miss a tiny microbead in that much water.

Yet, so often, consumers hear a different story. For instance, consider this article posted on CNN about the President’s microbead ban, which includes this passage:

…microbeads do not dissolve and may pose a threat to the environment. In September, a study published in Environmental Science & Technology reported that more than 8 trillion microbeads were entering the country's aquatic habitats daily. The volume was enough to coat the surface of 300 tennis courts every day.

OH MY GOD! 300 tennis courts-worth of microbeads! Those poor fish. They have nowhere to go!

Except, that’s not actually how it works. Allen explains: “The high concentrations of microbeads that environmentalists cite in their campaigns are from trawls of water surfaces, where most fish do not feed.”

Secondly, Allen points out that “fish are attracted to movement” eating what moves and that because “microbeads simply sit in the water” fish aren’t attracted to them as a food source.

But…But….the President banned microbeads! It must be bad if the President banned them, right?

Well, yes, President Obama did leave the situation room to ban microbeads, leaving many scratching their heads and asking whether he maybe, sort of, kinda has a few more important things to do. But, in the President’s defense, he certainly had a few studies to back up the move. Allen takes a look at those studies finding they hardly replicated the realities of marine life and the feeding habits of fish:

So how is it that environmentalists can claim fish are eating microbeads that we then ingest when eating fish? The claim is based on studies placing fish in beakers filled with water and microbeads. In these experiments the fish have nothing else to eat, so they eat the microbeads, which are present at extremely high concentrations.

In rivers, lakes and oceans fish have a vast variety of plants and organisms to consume. They’re simply not interested in a leftover microscopic bead of plastic from your face wash, if they can find one. Algae, zooplankton, and other fish are far tastier for them and infinitely easier to locate.

So, if you like your scratchy face wash, keep using it without the guilt that you’re killing Nemo and Dora. It’s good to see articles like this popping up pushing back on the accepted narrative that microbeads are harmful.

Perhaps public pressure can reverse this actions so women everywhere can stop hoarding their favorite exfoliating face scrub.

Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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