They are in products people use every day to help get grime off their hands, keep their faces acne free and even make their teeth pearly white. But environmentalists and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) say plastic microbeads are polluting the country's lakes and streams.
While standing in front of Lake Ontario, Gillibrand announced her push to get companies to remove microbeads from personal care products like hand soap, facial scrubs and toothpaste, citing the harmful effects they have on the environment.
"These microbeads are so small that when they go down the drain, they can't be captured by our water treatment centers, which means thousands of these plastic beads wash into our rivers, lakes and streams," Gillibrand explained. "Microbeads have already caused significant ecological damage to the Great Lakes region, and they will continue to do so until we remove them from our personal care products."
Once they end up in the water, those beads can be eaten by birds and fish, and then potentially people.
Gillibrand introduced federal legislation last month to prevent companies from selling products with synthetic microbeads, but says some companies are taking action without the threat of legislation.
"Sometimes it's just an awareness that's necessary because personal care product producers don't want to poison our Great Lakes," Gillibrand said. "They don't want to poison our fish. They don't want to create something that is going to put toxins in our food supply. So I think with good advocacy we can move the ball forward, even in advance of passing legislation."
Sarah Eckel, with the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, says some companies have already voluntarily removed the beads from their products.
"The best part about this is that there are already solutions on the marketplace," Eckel explained. "Things like walnut shells, apricot shells, cocoa beans and sea salt."
Gillibrand cited a 2012 SUNY Fredonia study that found a high concentration of microbeads in three of the Great Lakes, including Lake Ontario. New York, California and Ohio are considering prohibiting microbeads. In June, Illinois became the first state to ban the use of them in personal care products.