Ever notice blue specks on your toothbrush after brushing your teeth? Some brands of toothpaste contain tiny plastic "microbeads" - as many as 300,000 in a single tube - to give the dental product color. Microbeads also are widely used in face and body washes, among other cosmetic products, to gently exfoliate dead skin.
Now, amid evidence they're showing up in Maryland rivers and the Chesapeake Bay and concerns they could be harmful to fish as well as human health, a bill has been introduced in Annapolis to phase synthetic plastic microbeads out of personal care products and over-the-counter drugs sold in Maryland.
"The unfortunate part of them is that they enter the water ways – they’re not filtered by [wastewater] filtering systems – and then they enter the bottom of the food chain," said Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat who's chief sponsor of the measure.
Tiny plastic particles from a wide range of products have been found in great numbers in Atlantic and Pacific ocean "gyres" where currents collect all kinds of debris. But scientists checking four Maryland rivers with a net pulled up microplastic particles in all but one of their 60 samples, with the greatest concentrations in Baltimore's Patapsco River, according to a paper published last year.
In a less scientific survey, environmentalists last fall trawled a fine net through the open bay and picked up lots of tiny plastic bits, including microbeads that looked to be about the size of fish eggs, said Julie Lawson of Trash Free Maryland, one of the survey cruise leaders.
Concern has mounted that microplastics could be harmful to fish that ingest them, where they could irritate or damage their digestive systems. Plastic marine debris also accumulates toxic pollutants such as PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
With similar concerns about microplastics polluting the Great Lakes and local water ways, Illinois last year passed a law phasing out the manufacture and sale of personal care products containing synthetic plastic microbeads. Legislation has been introduced in Congress, and other states are considering similar measures.
Morhaim's bill, like the Illinois law, would ban manufacture of personal care products with synthetic plastic microbeads by the end of 2017 and prohibit their sale by the end of 2018. Over-the-counter products could no longer contain plastic microbeads after 2019.
That schedule is in line with voluntary phaseouts already announced by makers of many of the dental and personal care products containing microbeads. Procter & Gamble Co., makers of Crest toothpaste, has said it plans to remove microbeads from all its dental products by next year. Other makers of scrubs likewise have announced plans to gradually replace the synthetic beads with natural ones made of ground seeds or nuts.
Lawson, of Trash Free Maryland, backs Morhaim's bill, though said she wished the phaseout would happen more quickly.
But Morhaim said he's consulted with industry about the bill and believes it will have their support, increasing its odds of passage.
"Hopefully," he said, "people will see it as a step in the right direction to protect our waterways and to protect the flora and fauna of the bay."