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Michigan lawmakers are targeting millions of itty-bitty pieces of plastic used in toothpastes and facial cleansers that are showing up in the nation's largest inland lakes in relatively high concentrations.

Scientists are concerned because the synthetic microparticles, often called microbeads, are consumed by fish and other wildlife and may be entering the food chain. Toxic pollutants already in the Great Lakes tend to bind to the plastics, increasing the potential to harm aquatic organisms and those who consume them.

"These things may be called microbeads, but they're a mega-problem for our Great Lakes," said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

With ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-New Jersey, Upton is leading an effort in Congress to phase out the production and sale of cleansing products containing microbeads. Five states have similar laws on the books, and the Michigan Legislature is considering a comparable ban.

The consumer products industry isn't opposed to the effort, though its officials are quick to say their cleansers aren't the only source of synthetic microbeads. The industry wants a few years to reformulate its products and would like the ban to also cover over-the-counter drugs containing microbeads such as toothpastes and acne cleansers.

"Our industry supports federal plastic microbeads legislation establishing a national uniform standard that provides certainty for both consumers and businesses," John Hurson, vice president of government affairs for the Personal Care Products Council, recently told a congressional committee.

"Sam" Sherri A. Mason, professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia, was on a boat in Lake Michigan a few years ago when she came up with an idea to study the amount of plastic in the Great Lakes.

"I thought we'd find all these bags, bottles, but the majority of what we caught was incredibly small. Eighty percent of it was less than a millimeter in size," said Mason, whose 2012 and 2013 studies provided evidence of microbeads in the Great Lakes.

The density and roundness of some of the plastic microparticles provided a clue as to their source — personal-care cleansers containing plastic "scrubbers" for their abrasive exfoliating properties.

Cosmetics manufacturers began marketing the products in the 1990s after finding plastic to be a cheap, lightweight alternative to natural exfoliants, Mason said.

Some of the packaging advertised how the beads would easily rinse down the drain — and that's where the problem starts, she said. The plastic particles pass right through the filtration systems at wastewater treatment plants, ending up in waterways. "And they don't go away," Mason said.

Rate 'quite concerning'

A study released by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman last month found microbeads present in 74 percent of water samples collected from water discharged by 34 wastewater treatment plants in his state.

Dan Wyant, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, has called the rate of microplastic particles detected in Lakes Erie, Huron and Superior "quite concerning" at 43,000 per square kilometer because of their potential to enter the food stream. The rate was nearly 10 times higher in samples collected in Lake Erie downstream of two major Ohio cities, Wyant added.

"Although microbeads comprise only a portion of the plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, microbeads are an easily controllable component of that pollution," he said in testimony before Upton's committee.

"Microbeads is a clear issue. It's a clear threat. And there's a clear, simple answer, and we support the phaseout of microbeads and a federal approach."

Wyant also expressed support for bills in the Michigan Legislature that would prohibit the sale or distribution of products containing microbeads by 2017. Violators could receive a civil fine of $1,000 to $2,500 a day.

New Jersey, Indiana, Illinois, Maine and Colorado have adopted laws prohibiting microbeads in cosmetic products. Wisconsin lawmakers sent a bill to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature last month.

Major corporations including L'Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble have committed to removing microbeads from their products.

Definitions under debate

Not all have said when they'll do so, or what they'll use to replace the plastics, said Molly Flanagan, vice president of policy with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, an advocacy group.

"We don't want to see that stretch out years and years," Flanagan said. "We also want to make sure they're not replacing them with something else that ends up having the same problem" of not biodegrading in water.

Hurson of the Personal Care Products Council said the trade group wants the committee to incorporate "appropriate" definitions of synthetic microbeads to avoid inadvertently prohibiting the use of natural alternatives and provide clear direction to companies.

As written, Upton's bill leaves it to the Food and Drug Administration to define microbeads and enforce the microbead measure.

A microbead generally measures between 10 microns and 1 millimeter in size, but can be larger, Mason said. She would define a microbead as any synthetic or semi-synthetic polymeric material less than 5 millimeters at its longest length that washes down the drain with normal use.

Flanagan said Congress should take up the Upton bill because the federal government has "spent $1.9 billion over the last five years on restoring the Great Lakes, and it doesn't make sense to add to the threats."

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

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