Plastic pollution closer to home: microbeads in the Great Lakes

We tend to think in terms of oceanic pollution, the huge Great Pacific Ocean garbage patch or one of the other gyres, North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. (See Summer 2014 Port Hole.)

However, real trouble is available closer to home. An American scientist from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire has discovered that Arctic sea ice is contaminated with microplastics, tiny bits of plastic from the south. According to scientists, microplastics absorb and concentrate other environmental pollutants, which will enter our food chain as animals swallow them.

But even closer to home, a research team studying the Great Lakes discovered that Lake Ontario has more than a million beads per square kilometre. But that’s not the end of it. Water from Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron moves through Lake Erie then drains, via Niagara Falls, into Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and, ultimately, the Atlantic. And where do they come from? That was the next discovery. The findings? These tiny beads come from our toothpaste, our soaps, and our facial scrubs, where they provide the gentle abrasive effect we have come to expect. Too small to be filtered out by our water treatment facilities, they eventually make it to the lakes, where they accumulate and, as they do in the Arctic, collect toxic pollutants. And as the little fish who swallow them are, in turn, swallowed by the bigger fish that we eat, those little plastic beads eventually find their way into us.

The good news is that some of the major players, including Unilever, L’Oreal, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson, have agreed to start phasing microbeads out of their products.

The bad news is that there is no way of ridding the Great Lakes of the current accumulation of microbeads.

The other bad news is that the Canadian and American governments haven’t passed a united law banning the use of these tiny bits of plastic pollution. However, a binational committee of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission has urged the provincial, state and federal governments across North America to ban the production of any personal product that contains the tiny plastic beads that fish can mistake for food.

Read more at CBC news

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