Unintended Consequences

JUNE 4, 2015

Unintended Consequences

By Eric HartmanProduct Ventures, Vice President Technologies & Commercialization

Not too long ago I saw an article in the Washington Post talking about how plastic microbeads, the kind used as exfoliators in face and body washes and in toothpaste to aid in whitening have been discovered in sediment on the bottom of the Saint Lawrence River.

It turns out that previously the focus for detection of plastic pollution had been water itself, no one ever thought to take a look at the mud on the bottom of waterways. Unfortunately this means that the build-up of these materials could be worse than previously imagined, and they have the potential to be a significant source of damage to fish and other wildlife.

You see the problem with these microbeads is that they are almost impossible to get rid of. They're too small for waste water processing plants to filter out, so they're ending up downstream of the processing plants flowing into our rivers and eventually into the sediment on the floor of the ocean posing risks to marine life and water quality.

In recent years, researchers have reported finding the microbeads in the Great Lakes. Further research has found them in the Saint Lawrence River, which connects those lakes with the Atlantic Ocean and flows from eastern Canada to the Midwestern US.

In December 2013, a paper was published in Marine Pollution Bulletin and described how the Great Lakes were choking from this plastic pollution. While Lake Michigan had an average of 17,000 microbeads per square kilometer, some areas of Lake Ontario had as many as 1.1 million beads per square kilometer. These tiny particles coat the floor of the lake, choking out plant life.

In a study published recently in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, researchers went digging in the sedimant on the bottom of the waterways. In some areas they found over 1,000 microbeads per litre of sediment. What's worse is that the researchers only looked at the microbeads on the slightly larger end of the spectrum, so they suspect that smaller ones may have gone uncounted. This is worst in areas of slow river flow, where solids like these beads aren't being moved quickly enough to stay buoyant. In slow water, they sink --  and build up -- until the sediment is heavily polluted.

Additionally, some creatures mistake them for fish eggs or another marine food source and ingest them. Unable to digest the particles, their gut becomes filled with the plastic until they ultimately starve to death. The small fish who eat the plastic are eaten by progressively larger fish, all of whom begin to accumulate the plastic.

Unfortunately, the plastic alone isn’t the only problem. Plastic can act like a sponge for pollutants like motor oils and pesticides. As plastics fragment into smaller pieces, they concentrate toxins. Microbeads are highly potent concentrators, feeding toxins into plankton at the bottom of the food web. These chemicals then biomagnify up the food web, and it ends up meaning the top predators have the highest concentration of ingested toxins, and the top predators are precisely the things we like to eat, like tuna and swordfish. The waste chemicals we had eliminated are coming back to haunt us, and it won't be long before the fish we like to eat will be subject to health warnings for compounds like PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyl] or pesticides, as they already are for mercury. These toxins could work their way into bloodstreams all the way up the food chain, can you image where else this will go?

I'm sure that the chemist who first formulated a face wash with microbeads didn't know or didn't stop to consider what the outcome of formulating his/her new marvelous face wash product with these amazing new polymeric miracles. He was just pursuing what he thought was a great idea for a new product. How could he know that the unintended consequence of his decision would become a major source of pollution and problems some years hence?

Unfortunately we can never always be aware of the consequences of the actions that we take today, the impact that they will have on future generations and on the planet, but we have to all strive to do our best to think not in the short term, about what we are doing or achieving today, but about the consequences that our actions and decisions have over the longer term. It's not something that's easy to do, or for that matter transparent to the ultimate outcome, but if we don't get better at it soon we will surely become the victims of the consequences in the future ...


Eric Hartman is the Vice President Technologies & Commercialization for Product Ventures. 
Contact Eric at 203.319.1119 or ehartman@productventures.com