The same week that the U.S. House of Representatives passes a bill to ban microbeads in cosmetic products, the Bay's Regional Monitoring Program releases a fact sheet that describes our recent study on microbeads and other microplastic particles in Bay water and treated wastewater.
The RMP study found that microplastic pollution was widespread in Bay waters. The tiny plastic particles that pollute the Bay include microbeads used as abrasive ingredients in beauty products, fibers shed from clothing made from synthetic fabrics when they are washed, and minute fragments derived from the breakdown of larger plastic litter. Levels of microplastic pollution appear to be higher than observed within other major urbanized water bodies, such as the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. Microplastic pollution was also detected in treated wastewater discharged to the Bay. These findings were presented at the State of the Estuary Conference, and made headlines in leading newspapers.
The new RMP fact sheet provides detailed findings of our investigation and offers consumer tips for reducing plastic pollution.
Earlier this week, the House passed H.R. 1321, the Microbead-Free Waters Act. If the bill were passed by the Senate and signed into law, it would ban the use of microbeads in rinse-off personal care products beginning in 2017. As currently written, this bill would preempt state bans on microbeads, including California's new, strictest-in-the-nation ban, which Governor Brown signed into law in October.
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The RMP has conducted initial studies of microplastic pollution in San Francisco Bay. Findings from a 2015 screening-level RMP study of microplastic pollution in our Bay show widespread contamination at levels greater than other U.S. water bodies with high levels of urban development, the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. Wildlife consume microplastic particles; ingestion can lead to physical harm, and can expose aquatic organisms to pollutants like PCBs that the plastics have absorbed from the surrounding environment.
In the wake of the passage of the microbead ban, KQED released a story about it's potential hazards. As a science resource, Dr. Rebecca Sutton lent her expertise: "'Municipal wastewater systems were designed for our [bodily] waste and food waste, but they’re not engineered to handle tiny bits of plastics,' said Rebecca Sutton of the San Francisco Estuary institute. Upgrading waste treatment facilities to handle microbead waste would cost billions, and it wouldn’t necessarily be effective."
Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist at SFEI, describes the hazards presented by microplastics in the Bay's waters. "Plastic pollution: Billions of pieces of tiny plastic litter found in San Francisco Bay," a news article by Paul Rogers reports on findings in a recently published study for which Rebecca Sutton serves as lead author. What the researchers discovered, the high degree of plastic contamination, surprised them.
Last week, the Governor signed AB 888, a bill that bans microplastic beads in personal care products. Companies have until 2020 to phase out the use of these "microbeads." California now has strongest state law in the nation on this issue.
SFEI science played a key role in informing policymakers about microbeads and microplastic pollution. Media stories on a Regional Monitoring Program study of microplastics in San Francisco Bay water and treated wastewater broadcast the latest findings to a wide audience. The study indicated that our Bay had higher levels of microplastic pollution than the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. Clearly identifiable microbeads derived from personal care products were detected at all nine sites examined in San Francisco Bay.