24 August, 2016

Voluntary action won’t cut it. We need to ban microbeads to protect our environment and our health.

If I drop my rubbish on the floor it makes a mess, harms the local environment, and costs the local community who have to clean up after me. That is why we have laws to prevent people from polluting their environment with litter. We also try to make it easy for people to dispose of their rubbish correctly by having public bins and recycling points.

So why do we make it so hard for people to avoid polluting their environment (and their bodies) in other ways?

For several years I used a toothpaste that, unbeknownst to me, contained ‘microbeads’. Microbeads are tiny particles of plastic which are supposed to help clean my teeth. Although the evidence that they are beneficial is unclear. Every time I brushed my teeth, I washed thousands of plastic litter into our waterways.

When I found out, I was more than a bit annoyed! How could this be allowed to happen? Why were these products on the shelves? Was it just me who hadn’t got the memo on microbeads?

Hardly anyone I asked was aware of their existence, despite using toothpaste, facewashes and other products containing them. Like me, they assumed they wouldn’t have been able to buy a product that would obviously and needlessly damage our environment.

Scientific evidence

The damage caused by microbeads and other forms of ‘microplastic’ and the risks they pose for human health has been building for several years. Many of the chemicals associated with microplastics and chemicals that leach from plastic, such as phthalates and bisphenol A, are endocrine disruptors (which can affect the function of the hormone system) and may be linked to breast cancer.[1] [2] The United States has banned them from personal care products. But despite this, the Government has wavered on banning them in the UK, hoping for voluntary action from the companies making them.

We think this is wrongheaded. We agree with a recent Environmental Audit Committee report, arguing that action is needed now. Pre-cautionary regulations to protect our environment and our health should have prevented companies from producing products containing microbeads in the first place. The same principle applies to toxic flame retardants in furniture or diesel particulates from car fumes.

This is a global problem.

The microbeads I washed down my sink ended up in the sea, damaging the environment and being eaten by sea creatures (that can end up on our plates).[3] Water currents and fish cross national borders. Air pollution is blown across countries and continents. In each case, the health of our environment and ordinary citizens suffers, and the taxpayer usually picks up the bill.

Most of us, most of the time, want to do the right thing. But we don’t have the time or energy to invest in researching everything we buy or use. That is why we need global action and sensible regulations and policies protecting our health and environment.

Microbeads in personal care products represent a small part of the big plastic pollution problem. But in this case, the solution is obvious: ban them.

In the meantime, you can avoid microbead products using the Beat the Microbead app or Flora & Fauna’s Good Scrub Guide.


[1] T.-H. Hsieh and others, “Phthalates Induce Proliferation And Invasiveness Of Estrogen Receptor-Negative Breast Cancer Through The Ahr/HDAC6/C-Myc Signaling Pathway”, The FASEB Journal, 26 (2011), 778-787

[2] J. Corrales and others, “Global Assessment Of Bisphenol A In The Environment: Review And Analysis Of Its Occurrence And Bioaccumulation”, Dose-Response, 13 (2015)

[3] Anthony L. Andrady, “Microplastics In The Marine Environment”, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62 (2011), 1596-1605

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