Microbeads -- the tiny plastic pellets found in some facial cleansers, soaps and toothpastes -- are slipping into waterways in Nassau and elsewhere in New York, contaminating wildlife and posing a threat to humans, according to a state report to be released Thursday..
Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is issuing the report in support of his call for a statewide ban on microbeads, which are too small to be caught by filters in sewage treatment plants and can end up in oceans, bays and other waterways.
The Microbead Free Waters Act, requested by Schneiderman and sponsored by Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), passed the Assembly May 5 and is awaiting a Senate vote. If it passes, the ban would begin in 2016. More than 100 cosmetics and personal care products use the microbeads, which can be listed in the ingredients as polyethylene or polypropylene.
New York could be the first state to ban the plastics, although other states, including Illinois, are considering a ban.
"People are unwilling to sacrifice water quality just to continue to use products with plastic microbeads," Sweeney said in a statement. "I never met anyone who has wanted plastic on their face or in their fish."
The report pointed to Nassau County, where the two largest wastewater treatment plants don't have filters fine enough to capture the microbeads.
"This means when the residents of Nassau County unknowingly wash about 1.3 tons of microbeads down the drain every year, most are entering plants not equipped to stop them from being discharged into the Atlantic Ocean, Reynolds Channel and other surrounding waters," the report read.
The beads are smaller than 5 millimeters, light and "virtually indestructible," according to the report, and there is no known way to remove them once they're in waterways. They also are mistaken for food and eaten by wildlife, introducing the plastics into the food chain.
Almost 19 tons of microbeads a year are discharged into the state's wastewater, rinsed down the drain by consumers who use facial cleansers, cosmetics and other products that contain the microbeads, the report said.
Wastewater treatment plants would have to invest in costly upgrades to catch the microbeads, according to the report.
Dr. Sherri Mason of SUNY Fredonia, who has studied the effect of microbeads on the Great Lakes, said she wasn't aware of studies focusing on microbeads in septic and cesspool systems.
She said that the plastics also would eventually make it into nearby water bodies or aquifers.