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Water Today Title November 24, 2017

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By Jessica Lemieux

Microbeads are solid plastic particles that are used in a variety of products worldwide. These tiny beads are commonly found in personal care products, such as facial cleansers, scrubs and toothpaste. Microbeads may also be used in other consumer products, such as laundry detergent, cleaning products and printer toners.

On March 24, 2015, The House of Commons unanimously voted that microbeads entering the environment in consumer products, could have serious harmful effects, and therefore, that the Government of Canada should take immediate measures to add microbeads to the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA).

Specifically, the plastic microbeads of concern, are the solid plastic particles that are less than, or equal to, 5 millimeters. These small plastic particles are added to personal care products to exfoliate or cleanse the human body. The microbeads from these personal care products make their way down the drain, and eventually, are released into the aquatic environment.

On June 29, 2016, The Government of Canada officially added microbeads to the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA).

The proposed regulations and provisions are:

  • December 31, 2017 - prohibiting the manufacture and import of microbead-containing personal care products, including cosmetics that are used to exfoliate or cleanse, excluding non-prescription drugs and natural health products.
  • December 31, 2018 - prohibiting the sale or offer for sale of microbead-containing personal care products, including cosmetics that are used to exfoliate or cleanse, excluding non-prescription drugs and natural health products.
  • December 31, 2018 - prohibiting the manufacture and import of a microbead-containing non-prescription drug or natural health product that is used to exfoliate or cleanse.

These regulations are consistent with the Illinois Model Bill.

In 2014, Illinois became the first state to ban the manufacture of personal care products containing microbeads, by the end of 2017. The legislation also includes banning the sale of personal care products and the manufacture of over the counter drugs by the end of 2018, as well as the sale of over the counter drugs by the end of 2019.

The Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CCTFA) explains, “Reformulation out of plastic microbeads requires time to complete the necessary safety, stability, and regulatory requirements that help ensure a new product is safe for the consumer, as well as the environment.”

Microbeads have been shown to evoke both short and long-term effects in laboratory organisms and there is great concern for how aquatic species may be affected by them. The Department of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) published a Science Summary, which explains, “plastic microbeads may reside in the environment for a long time and they are continuously released to the environment resulting in long-term adverse effects on biological diversity and in the ecosystem.”

Deputy Minister of the Environment, Michael Martin, said, “Environment and Climate Change Canada recognize the environmental concerns posed by microbeads to our waterways and fish. Reducing plastic pollution in our lakes and rivers will help us to protect the long-term health of our environment. That’s why we are moving forward to ban microbeads in personal care products under Canada’s Chemicals Management Plan.”

Deputy Minister Michael Martin continued, “The Government of Canada published the final listing of microbeads [on June 29, 2016] adding them to the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, enabling the development of regulations. We launched public consultations and have received feedback from over 2000 Canadians on the measures being proposed. Standard regulatory timelines are being streamlined to ensure action is taken as quickly as possible and we would expect final regulations to be published in Summer 2017.”

Concerns have also been raised about the effects of microbeads on humans, as they are ingested and make their way through the food change.

A statement from ECCC addressed this issue.

“Although potential effects to human health through consumption of seafood containing microbeads have been flagged by some members of the public as a concern, the limited information on this source of exposure does not indicate a basis for review of potential risk to human health from exposure to microbeads.”

Darren Praznik, President & CEO of the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CCTFA), offered some insight into the situation.

Praznik said, “Plastic microbeads were introduced into cosmetic products a couple decades ago as a skin exfoliant. Exfoliating products, such as soaps and cleansers, traditionally had various kinds of fruit nuts added to provide that scrubbing function, but they were often found to be somewhat irritating to the skin, as they had sharper parts to them. This is what led suppliers to come out with the plastic microbeads, which are now used in a whole host of products. Consumers preferred these products, as they didn’t provide the same sharpness that the traditional exfoliants did. That’s how they were initially introduced.”

“A few years ago, when researchers began studying bodies of water and examined the issues of plastic litter, they were able to identify plastic microbeads in the aquatic environment. These could have been there from a variety of means, including laundry detergents, and not just cosmetic products. But as they can slip by wastewater systems, they were showing up in the aquatic environment. When that became known, generally speaking, there was a consensus among the [cosmetic, toiletry and fragrance] industry, that we needed to find a solution to this problem, in order to aid in the reduction of plastic litter in the aquatic environment.”

“ [Our] industry responded early and aggressively to address concerns over plastic microbeads by voluntarily phasing them out of products. The CCTFA worked with Environment and Climate Change Canada to develop the Final Order to add plastic microbeads to Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to eliminate their use in personal care products. Industry fully supports and, in fact, advocated for this federal legislative approach to help align with other jurisdictions and ensure a level-playing field in the market place. The industry will continue working with environmental and conservation NGOs, scientists and others to find pragmatic solutions to plastic litter in oceans and other waterways.”

Praznik explained that it was extremely important to have this regulation on a federal level, as opposed to a provincial level, to create a level playing field as everyone will have to abide by the same set of regulations. He added that, additionally, by adding microbeads as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, microbeads would, now, also be added to a “hot list,” which is a list that manufacturers and importers of personal care products must follow. The “hot list” is a list of prohibited or restricted ingredients for cosmetic and drug products, which means that anybody making or importing a cosmetic in Canada, will see that microbeads are on that list.

Praznik explained that the member companies they represent, who still do have microbeads in their products, are already making the necessary changes.

“We suspect [the member companies] will be well within the legislative deadlines. The companies have a true commitment to get out of microbeads, and there will also be a regulation making them illegal. These companies aren’t sitting around waiting for the deadline, though, they are already actively making the changes.”

However, microbeads that are found in personal care products, are the not the only contributing factor to the greater issue of microplastics littering the aquatic environment.

Microbeads from cosmetics make up a tiny fraction of microplastic litter in waterways. Research has repeatedly shown microbeads to be one of the smallest sources of plastic litter in oceans, contributing to between 0.1% - 1.5% of total litter in the aquatic environment, as recently acknowledged by the United Nations Environment Program.

Praznik said, “To solve the issue we really have to look at the bigger picture. We aggressively and voluntarily got out of microbeads and advocated for a federal legislative approach to assure a level playing field and alignment with other jurisdictions. The level of cooperation and commitment shown in this situation is a good example, going forward, for the other industries and products that contribute to the micro-aquatic litter into the environment.”

“In addition, several independent studies in the U.S. and Europe have shown that wastewater treatment plants are able to remove approximately 98% of microbeads which enter these facilities. Such studies highlight the fact that microbead exposure to the environment is extremely low.”

“The big issue is composed of a lot of small parts, including water bottles and plastic bags that are tossed out into the aquatic environment, which break down, along with all sorts of consumer waste that gets dumped in and eventually breaks down.”

“Ultimately, real solutions must address the leading sources of marine litter. These include larger plastic debris that harms wildlife when they ingest or get entangled in it - as well as helping to improve waste management by the less-developed countries that are the largest sources of both large and small plastic litter in the oceans.”

A statement from the Ottawa River Keepers also discussed how the issue of aquatic pollution is much greater than microbeads.

“While we are taking important steps to protect our waterways from microbeads, it is important to recognize that microbeads are only part of a larger plastic pollution problem facing our waters. Other microplastics - including industrial micropellets, microfibers from synthetic clothing, and plastic fragments from the breakdown of larger plastic trash - make up a significant amount of the pollution in our waterways. They have the potential to pose similar risks to the health of our aquatic ecosystems.”

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