Microbeads: Bad for You, Bad for the Environment

By Tom Barrett | October 3, 2016

You wake up in the morning, brush your teeth and wash your face. The toothpaste and face wash go down the drain and you’ll never see it again… right? Wrong! What if I told you some of the ingredients, known as microbeads, found in your toothpaste and face wash could end up back in your stomach?

Microbeads are small manufactured solid plastic particles, typically less than one millimeter in diameter (or about the size of a grain of sand), made of polyethylene, polypropylene or polystyrene. They are the latest in a long line of pollutants to be put to use before their impacts to the environment are known. In a culture where we want everything better, faster and cheaper… chemicals and products are used first and their affects worried about later. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos, lead, and now microbeads.

Microbeads are often added to act as an exfoliant or application enhancer in personal hygiene products such as soaps, face washes, cosmetics and toothpaste. They were first introduced in 1972 and are used in more than 100 consumer products currently. Consumers using products containing microbeads often wash the product down the bathroom drains in their homes, which drain into the sewer system making their way to wastewater treatment plants.

The majority of wastewater treatment equipment used today is unable to filter or remove microbeads, which ultimately get deposited into waterways as a pollutant.

Microbeads do not easily degrade, accumulating in waterways and potentially in drinking water. They make their way into rivers, lakes and oceans when treated wastewater is released into these bodies of water.

A study conducted by New York’s Office of the Attorney General in late 2014, titled “Discharging Microbeads to Our Waters: An Examination of Wastewater Treatment plants in New York,” detected microbeads in the effluent samples from 25 of the 34 treatment plants participating in this study, suggesting that microbeads are being discharged at the majority of treatment plants operating across New York State.” It is estimated that more than eight trillion microbeads are introduced into waterways in the United States each day, according to the American Chemical Society.

Food Chain At-Risk

Once in the water, microbeads bio-accumulate. They are often mistaken for food, being ingested by zooplankton. These small marine creatures are then consumed by larger species such as fish, mussels and oysters and ultimately by humans. While polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene are generally non-toxic plastics there is little known about their toxicity at a micro size. Microbeads may bind with toxins like PCBs and other compounds because of the irregular shape and possibly static charge, releasing their harmful effects when ingested.

The potential time and cost associated with retrofitting equipment to effectively eliminate microbeads from effluent wastewaters is significant. The consensus amongst environmental professionals is in order to eliminate microbeads from effluent water discharge, the source of the microbeads must be eliminated. This means removing microbeads from personal hygiene products.

Mary Creagh, chairwoman of the Environmental Audit Committee in the United Kingdom, said in an article published by The Independent: “The most effective way to reduce microplastic pollution is to prevent plastic from entering our waters in the first place…Cosmetic companies need to clean up their act and phase out the plastic microbeads causing marine pollution.”

Long-Term Effects

The long term effects of microbeads, and the legal liability associated with the potential effects of microbeads in the environment, may not be known for years. Companies whose products contain microbeads should be prepared.

In general, most commercial general liability policies contain a total or absolute pollution exclusion, which likely eliminates coverage for bodily injury or property damage caused by microbeads. Thus, companies may wish to explore with their insurance agents alternative options to address their needs, including a specialty environmental product such as a products pollution liability policy, that might address claims associated with microbead pollution.

As is the case with many environmental/pollution issues, we as a society are late to the game. The trend appears to be to use now and worry about the effects later. Why can’t we study the effects of these harmful materials before it’s too late? The damage is done. Microbeads are everywhere and they’ll continue to remain in the ecosystem for the rest of our lifetime and beyond.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author and do not reflect the views of Everest Insurance, Everest National Insurance Co. and/or its affiliates.

About Tom Barrett

Barrett is head of environmental at Everest Insurance. He has been in the insurance industry for 11 years with the past four years at Everest. Phone: 908-604-7029

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Insurance Journal West October 3, 2016
October 3, 2016
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