Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Banning Microbeads in Skin Care Products

Unless disposal practices change, experts predict that by 2050 
the amount of plastic in the oceans will outweigh the fish
- World Economic Forum, January 2016

On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed into law the “Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015,” which prohibits the manufacture and introduction into interstate commerce of rinse-off cosmetics containing intentionally-added plastic microbeads. "Rinse-off" in this context means stuff like body scrub products, but also toothpaste. The legal process was remarkably fast, as the bill was introduced in March, passed by Congress in December and signed into law ten days later. This bill amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to ban sale of cosmetics that contain synthetic plastic microbeads beginning on January 1, 2018. The two year delay allows companies time to reformulate products and sell off existing inventory.

Microbeads are itty-bitty pieces of plastic. Most often polyethylene, and less than one millimeter in diameter. Once in fresh or salt water, plastic is consumed by small creatures which mistake the plastic for food. The problem passes up the food chain, so that shellfish, fish, amphibians and birds end up with plastic in their digestive tracts. And us, too - a disquieting thought the next time you order clams or mussels. Plastics can contain or accrue persistent organic pollutants, which in turn can be absorbed from the beads' surface when consumed.    

Why not just use sand, or ground up walnut shells?  When solids are mixed into liquids the solids tend to float to the top or settle to the bottom. The plus for plastics is a density very close to that of water, so batches of product, once mixed, will stay blended during the process of filling containers and also while on the shelf in a store or after being bought. It is exactly this neutral buoyancy that causes problems at the wastewater treatment plant. Once in the treatment tanks microbeads will neither float nor settle, and so cannot be separated from wastewater that way. And the beads are too small to be retained by standard size screens.

Locally, this means that the four wastewater treatment facilities on the Assabet River are discharging microbeads into the river. Ditto two on the Sudbury River and two on the Concord River. 

Many companies were already acting to reformulate. According to Beat the Microbead [], Unilever started the process by announcing in late 2012 that all of its products would be microbead-free by 2015. Johnson & Johnson, which currently has many bead-containing products in the Nutragena brand, promised to be done by 2017. BTM's website lists products that are already microbead free.

What is striking here is how fast the path was from invention, to commercialization, to environmental detection as a pollutant, and finally to a regulatory ban. Elapsed time was about 15 years. Different stories can be told about chemical compounds commercialized around a century ago, which then experienced widespread use before being discontinued or banned decades later.

In 1921,chemists at General Motors discovered that addition of tetraethyllead (TEL) to gasoline prevented "knocking," i.e., faulty timing of fuel ignition in internal combustion engines. Before leaded gas was discontinued in almost all countries, estimates were that greater than 300,000 tons of lead were being added to gasoline - and thus to the atmosphere and worldwide soil contamination and water supply - every year. We humans took billions of pounds of a known brain toxin out of the ground and spread it everywhere for decades! Usage began to taper off in the 1970s, followed by country-by-country bans in the 1990s. By the way, house paint could be up to fifty percent lead until 1955, when the limit was changed to one percent. Later even lower.

Circa 1928, chemists at Frigidaire, a division of General Motors, invented chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The most popular one was branded as Freon and used as a 'safe' coolant compound for refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners, and as compressed gas in fire extinguishers and aerosol products. Only in the 1970s did it become clear that Freon was damaging the atmosphere's protective ozone layer. Freon and other polluting CFCs are still in the process of being phased out worldwide.   

As fate had it, both TEL and Freon were invented by the same person. Thomas Midgley, Jr., a Cornell-educated engineer and chemist, had a productive career at General Motors. He was listed as inventor on scores of patents and won major chemistry society awards. In hindsight, he has been referred to as the most dangerous man to have ever lived, but the real culprits were the leaders of the companies that commercialized and profited from these inventions long after  becoming aware of potential for harm.

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