What you can’t see can hurt you…
The acne medications and facial scrubs in my cabinet belong, sadly, not to my teenagers, but to me. While I have lots more to worry about than my face breaking out, it’s not my favorite thing to deal with, or talk about …yet here I am sharing with the world as is if this is news of some sort. The breaking news here is not that I have bad skin, but that the choices I have been making to deal with it may be harmful to me, you, and the whales I’ve dedicated my life to protecting.
I am spending this week at the International Whaling Commission’s Marine Debris Workshop in Woods Hole, MA. Scientists and policy makers from around the world are gathering to discuss marine debris, a problem that the Director of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program astutely pointed out is something that we can all do something about. According to Nancy Wallace, everyone from young children to grandmothers can take action, from making choices about the products we buy to picking up trash to the old, but still applicable standby of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
But back to my facial scrubs. According to Dr. Christina Fossi of the University of Sienna, microplastics, tiny beads of plastics that are nearly invisible to the naked eye (think one to five grains of sugar), are polluting our oceans. Her study found 892,000 microplastics / Km2 floating in the Mediterranean (imagine moving the entire population of Chicago to Central Park). Some of these tiny pieces of plastics are the result of fragments from degradation of plastic debris. But some of them are “primary” sourced, i.e. they are plastic pellets made to seed the plastics industry, or made specifically to be used as an abrasive in a variety of products, from facial scrubs to toothpastes. From your drain to a river or stream, many of these tiny pieces of plastic eventually end up in the ocean to be mistaken for food by birds or fish or even whales.
Ingesting the plastic itself would seem to be enough of a problem to consider but that’s just the tip of the proverbial chemical-burg. Microplastics are carriers of lipophilic chemicals like phthalates which have been linked to breast cancer, reproductive failures, and metabolic problems. Like static cling, these chemicals loosely attach to the plastics and, once ingested, mix with stomach acids and detach from their plastic host and enter the blood stream of the consumer. These chemicals are known as endocrine disruptors because they can then wreak havoc on the hormone systems of mammals, including whales and humans. Dr. Fossi’s team has found phthalate metabolites in zooplankton and fin whales in the Mediterranean. At the same time, the fin whale population in the Med has decreased by a factor of six over the last 20 years. It is possible that this decline can be, in part, attributed to the reproductive failures resulting from chemical exposure.
But as Dr. Wallace said, this is an issue in which we can all make a difference. Thanks to a collaborative European campaign by a number of non-profits, “beat the microbead” has resulted in Colgate-Palmolive, L’Oreal and Beiersdorf ending their use of micro beads and Unilever is following suit. And thanks to plasticsoup.org and the North Sea Foundation, there’s an app for that! By downloading the app, you can scan products and determine if microbeads are included, helping all of us making better choices and take actions. And don’t forget the old adage of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle- it matters!