Time to end the environmentalist war on face wash

Allen Burton

Environmentalists would have you believe that microbeads of plastic found in face wash, body wash, and toothpaste are a hazardous threat to our local waterways, marine life, and the fish from Lake Huron and Lake Erie.

A new law, the Microbead-Free Waters Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, will ban microbeads from consumer products by mid-2017.

But if environmentalists and lawmakers are trying to clean our water, protect marine life, and make fish safer for human consumption, their campaigns and legislative efforts have been a huge waste of time and taxpayer money.

At the University of Michigan, scientists have cut apart and examined 145 fish from Lakes Huron and Erie, where some of the highest levels of microplastics in the world have been reported. These represented the six species most likely to consume microplastics. Under the microscope, we examined the gut of each. Not one contained a microbead of plastic. Not one.

Freshwater fish simply are not eating microbeads. Why?

First, there are very few microbeads in the water where fish feed. The very worst sites have only 1-3 microplastic particles for every 300-700 liters of water, a small fraction of which are actual microbeads. The high concentrations of microbeads that environmentalists cite in their campaigns are from trawls of water surfaces, where most fish do not feed.

Second, most fish are attracted to movement. They eat what moves. That’s why fish eat zooplankton, for example. In contrast, microbeads simply sit in the water.

So how is it that environmentalists can claim fish are eating microbeads that we then ingest when eating fish? The claim is based on studies placing fish in beakers filled with water and microbeads. In these experiments the fish have nothing else to eat, so they eat the microbeads, which are present at extremely high concentrations.

In rivers, lakes and oceans fish have a vast variety of plants and organisms to consume. They’re simply not interested in a leftover microscopic bead of plastic from your face wash, if they can find one. Algae, zooplankton, and other fish are far tastier for them and infinitely easier to locate.

Is there pollution in the water? Of course. But environmentalists have been picking the wrong fight.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and states found the biggest pollutants to be: pathogens (including bacteria and viruses), nutrients (largely from municipal wastewaters, fertilizer and animal waste), mercury and other metals, sediments, PCBs, pesticides and ammonia.

Microplastics don’t make the list.

To do a better job of preventing these more pervasive and important pollutants from impacting our waterways, we can:

■Strengthen our water treatment facilities to better reduce discharges of pathogens, nutrients, metals, and synthetic organics;

■Promote environmental farming that employs good conservation practices reducing runoff;

■Promote green infrastructure in our cities to reduce storm water loadings into our streams and coastal areas;

■Reduce our use of fertilizers and pesticides and try not to use them on our lawns, particularly before rains, to minimize run off;

■Be cognizant that anything going into a street drain ends up in a stream, river or coastal area, directly impacting water quality.

These are some practical effective ways we can promote a cleaner, healthier aquatic environment. Banning microbeads in cosmetics will fail to achieve this laudable goal.

G. Allen Burton Jr. is a professor in the School of Natural Resources & Environment and director of the Cooperative Institute of Limnology and Ecosystems Research at the University of Michigan.