Op-Ed: Tiny Beads Polluting N.Y. Waters
Op-Ed Published in the Albany Times Union
By Eric T. Schneiderman
For decades, New Yorkers have worked hard to protect and restore our lakes and rivers. Massive dredging projects have been under way for years to clean up industrial pollution in Onondaga Lake and the Hudson River. Major water pollution recovery work is slated for the Saint Lawrence River system and additional work is ongoing in the Bronx River watershed.
But now we face a new pollution threat to New York waters from plastic microbeads. And as documented in a report released this week by my Environmental Protection Bureau, there is no known way to clean these pollutants up once they're released into our environment.
That's why I have submitted an attorney general's program bill to the Legislature to stop the flow of microbeads into our waters before they do irreversible damage.
Microbeads are tiny plastic beads, usually one millimeter or less in diameter, that serve as abrasives in personal care products such as facial scrubs, body washes and toothpaste. Often, consumers don't even know they're there. But while they may be invisible to users, roughly 19 tons of microbeads are washed down the drain in New York every year.
When people wash their face or brush their teeth, they don't intend to pollute lakes and rivers with plastic that can harm wildlife, and public health — but that's exactly what is happening.
About 75 percent of the water that goes down drains in New York is directed to wastewater treatment plants, where — because they are so small and buoyant — most of the microbeads pass right through and into our lakes and rivers.
Researchers from the State University of New York at Fredonia have conducted sampling in the Great Lakes and found alarmingly high concentrations of microbeads, with the highest concentrations in the New York waters of Lake Erie. And like all plastics, they can persist in the environment for centuries.
Once in our lakes and rivers, the tiny plastic beads can be mistaken for food by fish and other wildlife where they can cause internal injuries or blockages. This can result in stunted growth and even death through starvation.
Microbeads can also accumulate nasty chemicals, like highly toxic PCBs, on their surfaces. When attached to plastic, these chemicals become readily available to be consumed by aquatic species.
This can result in deadly chemicals being passed up the food chain — including to people. PCBs and other toxic pollutants can lead to a host of health problems in humans, including birth defects, cancer, and learning and growth deficits in children.
Many industry leaders recognize the environmental and health threat posed by microbeads, and some companies have committed to replacing them with readily available natural alternatives. But we can't afford to wait for every company to act voluntarily.
My legislation, the Microbead-Free Waters Act, would prohibit the distribution and sale in New York of any personal care product containing plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size. The state Assembly already passed the bill.
New York is a national leader in addressing concerns related to plastic pollution, requiring plastic bag recycling in large stores, and including plastic water bottles under our state deposit law.
By enacting a strong ban on microbeads in New York, we will continue to lead the nation in fighting plastics pollution and provide a model for addressing this emerging environmental threat.
New York has come too far in cleaning up and protecting our rivers and lakes to allow a new and unnecessary type of pollution to flow into our waters unchecked.
Let's take action now to stop microbead pollution at its source, before it causes irreparable harm to our environment and public health.