I suspect most women would agree that when you find a skin care product that works, you stick with it. But activist groups are waging war against many key ingredients in our personal care regimens based on highly speculative and questionable science. Both regulators and manufacturers are responding with product bans or “voluntary” product reformulations, leaving women with fewer options.
For example, you may soon notice that those little microbeads in your face wash are gone. Last December, President Barack Obama signed into law a federal ban, requiring manufacturers to phase them out by early 2017 after some industry groups agreed to do it voluntarily. Upon passage of the law, the sponsor of the legislation, U.S. House Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), exclaimed: “Simply put, microbeads are causing mega-problems.”
Yet the evidence of “mega-problems” doesn’t exist. Rather, there’s no hard evidence these tiny plastic balls pose any danger to humans, and little, if any, evidence they have had a significant impact on wildlife in real life settings. In fact, the ban was not driven by evidence but by a “concern” as Upton’s press release acknowledges.
The concern is that wastewater treatment facilities might not capture microbeads after being washed down the drain, allowing them to enter waterways. In the water, plastics can absorb chemicals from nature or pollution, so if marine creatures eat them, the chemicals might be absorbed and build up (“bioaccumulate”) in animal tissues. Then, as predators eat these fish and other animals eat them, the chemicals might concentrate in animal tissue as it moves up the food chain, a process referred to as “biomagnification.” And then, finally, if the chemicals reach high enough concentrations in animal tissue, they might pose health threats to wildlife and humans that eat those animals.
That’s a lot of “mights” and “ifs,” which underscores the many uncertainties in the science. A closer look reveals that not all the scenarios are likely. For example, the claim cited in Upton’s press release that there is “no mechanism” in wastewater treatment facilities to filter out microbeads is simply wrong. Research studies have found that about 99 percent of microbeads from personal care products are captured at waste treatment plants and never enter waterways. “Existing treatment processes were determined to be very effective for removal of microplastic contaminants entering typical municipal WWTPs [waste water treatment plants],” according to one study.
The amount that does flow out into waterways from waste water plants is insignificant, particularly when compared to other sources of microplastics entering the environment. Banning an insignificant source of microplastics pollution won’t make much of a difference.
Moreover, as the Independent Women’s Forum’s Julie Gunlock explains, it is unlikely that fish eat many microbeads in real-life scenarios. In fact, she points out, a team of University of Michigan researchers found no microbeads in the guts of fish they dissected. Pulled from Lakes Huron and Erie, the fish they examined were not only the species “most likely to consume microbeads,” they were fished from waters with reportedly the highest concentration of the beads. If there was a “mega-problem” or even a significant one, you would expect researchers to find it there, but they didn’t.
The study’s lead researcher, Allen Burton, explained in an open letter in The Detroit News that a ban on microbeads in personal care products is basically useless in terms of environmental protection. “[I]f environmentalists and lawmakers are trying to clean our water, protect marine life, and make fish safer for human consumption, their campaigns and legislative efforts have been a huge waste of time and taxpayer money,” Burton explained.
The only “evidence” that microbeads could harm wildlife has been found in lab experiments. But these experiments are not particularly relevant. Burton notes: “In these experiments the fish have nothing else to eat, so they eat the microbeads, which are present at extremely high concentrations.” In real life settings, fish are “simply not interested in a leftover microscopic bead of plastic from your face wash, if they can find one. Algae, zooplankton, and other fish are far tastier for them and infinitely easier to locate.”
A marine biologist, Burton is concerned about pollution in our waterways, but “microbeads don’t even make the list” of problem contaminants. He’s more concerned that these bans may divert our attention from more serious issues.
Still, activists list a number of studies online at BeatTheMicrobead.org that supposedly prove microbeads are a problem. The activist website links to a United Nations (UN) report, which the site describes as offering “an accurate summary” of this research. Yet after speculation about potential risks, this same UN report notes: “Currently there is insufficient evidence to assess the potential transfer of these contaminants to the fish flesh, and hence be made available to predators, including humans.”
In a review of the literature, Albert A. Koelmans of Wageningen University in the Netherlands tempers the idea that microbeads contribute to bioaccumulation and biomagnification of chemicals in the food chain. He explains that the lab tests that form the basis for such claims are not particularly relevant. In these tests, “clean” fish are placed in tanks of clean water to which intentionally polluted microbeads are added. Without other food, the fish eat these highly polluted plastics, and some chemicals are absorbed in tissue.
But in the real world, trace chemicals are found in the water, in the fish, and some may be absorbed by microbeads. If the fish eat microbeads at all, the beads might even have the opposite effect, absorbing chemicals from fish tissue. Then the fish pass the beads along with other food waste products. In other words, microbeads could “clean” the pollution out of the fish, making bioaccumulation and biomagnification implausible.
But given that fish focus on eating food more than microbeads, as Burton points out, it’s probably more likely that the impact is negligible.
Some might still say: What’s the harm with being cautious? After all, do we really need these microbeads? First, let’s not forget that replacement products might not work as well and could pose other, more serious risks. Second, banning things because policymakers think we don’t need them takes us down a slippery slope. What will they ban next? Activist groups have a long list of items they would like to take away from you and me.
This post is just the first in a series on what I see as a war on women’s personal care choices. Stay tuned.