Crain’s Chicago Business: Cleansing microbeads are everywhere — including our lake and river

A tiny product is causing big environmental concerns in the Great Lakes.

Plastic exfoliating microbeads—pinhead-sized spheres suspended in hundreds of facial scrubs, toothpastes and shaving creams—are silting fresh-water lakes, biologists say. And there’s some evidence that they’re flowing into the Chicago River.

Though they’re deemed safe for health and beauty products, microbeads can be an environmental danger because they’re roughly the size and shape of fish eggs, which other fish eat. Bigger fish then eat the small fry, the plastic gets incorporated into their flesh and then can end up in our fish dinners. Also, the beads are not biodegradable, and the petroleum in the plastic serves as a magnet for toxins such as motor oil and insecticides.

“The premise is that the bigger fish are then caught by Fred and Wilma over at Montrose Harbor, and when they eat them the plastic beads work their way into people’s bodies,” says Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. “It’s analogous to mercury contamination.”

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