New York’s waterways are swimming in plastic microbeads

It’s morning. Brush your teeth. A quick shower, shampoo. Going to the beach? Get on the sunscreen. OK, ready to roll. You’ve just sent countless microscopic plastic bits swirling down the drain, through the sewer system and into the nearest water body.

Many common products including toothpastes, cosmetics, shampoos, soaps and sunscreens contain tiny plastic spheres. The ball-bearing effect of these so-called microbeads gives products their smooth feel and spreadability. Introduced in the 1990s, they are too small for sewage plants to filter out, so they go straight to rivers, lakes and oceans. Here, pesticides, drugs and industrial compounds like PCBs tend to glom onto their surfaces. Zooplankton, fish and shellfish eat them. They appear to be building up in the environment, adding to the burden of plastic bits that result from the breakdown of larger objects like plastic bottles, bags and other items that potentially threaten ecosystems and human health.

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