What are microbeads?
Microbeads are tiny plastic pellets found in cosmetic and personal-care products. They are inexpensive abrasive agents used to make them sparkle or to slough off grease and rough patches for skin to make it feel cleaner and smoother. They are most commonly found in mass-market shower gels, facial cleansers and scrubs, as well as in toothpaste and even some lipsticks.
Problem down the pipes
Microbeads are not considered harmful to human health. The problems begin when they are rinsed out of the mouth or off the face and end up down the drain of the shower or the bathroom sink.
Microbeads are too small to be caught by the filters at most wastewater treatment plants and they head into rivers and lakes in their original forms. A team of researchers from McGill University and the Quebec government found microbeads at the bottom of the St. Lawrence River, in some places more than 1,000 microbeads per litre of sediment. Others researchers have also raised concerns about the number of microbeads found in the Great Lakes.
Once they are in the water, algae and bacteria grow on the surface of microbeads, which makes them heavy enough to sink to the bottom, and also helps them pick up toxic chemicals floating around in the water. “So, we end up with the bottoms of our rivers and lakes covered in millions and millions of these tiny beads,” says Tim Gray, executive director of the non-governmental organization Environmental Defence, which has been pushing for a ban on microbeads.
Small, bottom-dwelling fish then come along and eat the microbeads in the sediment. Gray says the danger is two-fold: the microbeads cause physical harm by plugging up the insides of these small fish, but it also means they are consuming those toxic chemicals. “Then the big fish eat the little fish,” says Gray. “We have a new vehicle for helping toxic chemicals accumulate in the food chain.”
New Democrat MP Megan Leslie introduced a motion in the House of Commons this March calling for microbeads to be added to the list of toxic substances named under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which would effectively ban them from the market. It passed with unanimous support.
“It would actually prevent the use, the import and the manufacture, the whole gamut,” Leslie said Thursday.
Liberal MP John McKay, meanwhile, introduced a private member’s bill (C-680) this week that would amend the Food and Drugs Act, which falls under the responsibility of Health Canada, to prohibit the sale of cosmetics containing plastic measuring 5 millimetres or smaller.
The government’s position
Environment Canada has begun a scientific review to assess the effects of microbeads on water and wildlife. Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq has also called for the issue to be on the agenda when the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment meets next month.
Health Canada does not believe there is any evidence at this time that microbeads are harmful to human health, but says its scientists will continue to monitor the issue and if anything changes, the department will act.
Cosmetics companies’ view
Darren Praznik, president and CEO of the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, says five of its 14 member companies that have used microbeads in the past have already removed them from their products and the other nine — including L’Oréal and Johnston & Johnston — have committed to doing so.
And they still want regulation, to make sure one-off products intended for discount markets and counterfeit goods are also free of microbeads.
Praznik argued the Canadian Environmental Protection Act would be the better way to go, because it would be more comprehensive and, he argued, the definition of cosmetics under the Food and Drug Act is too narrow to be completely effective.
Banning the beads
Illinois was the first American state to pass legislation last year that bans the manufacture and sale of cosmetics and toiletries containing microbeads by the end of 2017. New Jersey followed suit and several other states, including Michigan, New York and Indiana are working on it.
In January, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden all pooled their efforts to call on the European Union to ban microbeads from personal-care products, explicitly expressing concern about the possibility of it harming human health by ending up in seafood.
In Ontario, Liberal MPP Marie-France Lalonde introduced a private member’s bill calling for a ban on microbeads this March.