As far back as the 1970s, the dangerous nature of plastics in our global waterways was well known. Images of turtles and birds entangled in soda six-pack liners heightened our awareness of the impact of plastic waste products on marine life.

Now, there's a new danger: the accumulation of toxic chemicals in tiny plastic microbeads that are introduced into our waterways from many of the personal care products and over-the-counter drugs that we use every day. These plastic microbeads represent a growing concern to our environment and the animals and humans that interact with it.


The plastic microbeads (often made of polyethylene or polypropylene) are recent additions to facial scrubs, soaps and toothpastes as abrasives or exfoliants. A single product can contain as many as 350,000 of these tiny particles, which are washed down our drains and into waste water after use. Unfortunately, most plastic microbeads are not filtered out by our sewage treatment facilities and end up floating directly into our lakes, rivers and oceans. Once in Maryland's waterways, they attract other toxic chemicals, such as persistent organic pollutants, which have cancer causing properties.

While all plastic waste is harmful to our marine life, the accumulation of microplastics is a unique concern because they have the potential to be ingested by a wide range of organisms, from plankton to large fish, making them and the chemicals they carry prevalent throughout the marine environment. When microbeads are ingested by small marine animals, the poisons build up in the food chain all the way to the seafood on our dinner plates. As a result, Marylanders are exposed not only to the plastic microbeads in their locally-caught crabs and oysters, but also to the accumulated poisons. These plastic microbeads can take decades to break down in the cold waters of the Chesapeake, if they ever do at all.

Of the many toxic chemicals that can accumulate in plastic microbeads, some of the most concerning for Marylanders are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs account for nearly two-thirds of the chemical pollutants in parts of the Chesapeake Bay, and human exposure to PCBs has been associated with multiple types of cancers, liver disease, low birth weight babies and other health issues.

There are natural, biodegradable alternatives to plastic microbeads, such as pieces of walnut shells and jojoba wax, which already exist on the market and are being used as exfoliants. But with more than a thousand products containing plastic microbeads, the industry has a lot to address. Some companies, such as Procter & Gamble (maker of Crest toothpaste) and Unilever (maker of Dove soap), have agreed to stop using plastic microbeads in their products. While this is a positive step forward, plastic microbeads remain abundant in many other products. Only by banning these microbeads will we be able to remove the threat that they pose to our health and our environment.

In 2014, Illinois passed a law to ban plastic microbeads after recognizing the dangers they were posing to the Great Lakes. The Illinois law provides time for the personal care product companies to slowly phase out the manufacture and sale of products that contain plastic microbeads. In addition to the Illinois bill, other states such as California, New Jersey, New York and Virginia are also working on similar legislation to ban plastic microbead products from being manufactured or sold in their states.

The Maryland General Assembly should do the same in order to protect the Chesapeake Bay and our citizens from plastic microbeads and their associated problems. Del. Dan Morhaim has introduced House Bill 216, which would ban the use of synthetic plastic microbeads in personal care products by the end of 2017 and in over the counter drugs by the end of 2018, and the sale of such products a year later, in 2018 and 2019 respectively. A hearing on the bill is set for Wednesday at 1 p.m.

It is common sense and sound prevention to protect consumers of Maryland's crabs and oysters. Plus, doing so will help sustain our seafood industry, which relies on the health of the local marine life. We encourage our Maryland legislators to act quickly to rectify the dangers imposed by these tiny but risky products.

Dr. Richard A. Bruno is a family and preventive medicine resident physician at MedStar Health and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; his email is rabruno@gmail.com. Contributors to this op-ed include Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health graduate students Pooja J. Kothari, Adam Briskin-Limehouse and Hannah G. Jones. Pavitra V. Gudur, an undergraduate at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University, also contributed.