Yesterday, the Daily Mail reported that the scientific journal Nature is criticizing actress Jennifer Aniston for promoting Aveeno face wash, which contains microbeads (microbeads are tiny plastic beads that act as exfoliators). This story is sure to resurrect the war on microbeads (the Nature editorial was actually written last year, but the Daily Mail is only reporting on it now)
For years, activists have been after microbeads, claiming they are ending up in waterways and killing off marine life. Yet, as I wrote a few months ago, that isn't even remotely true. According to Allen Burton, a professor of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, a new study is casting doubt on the whole microbeads=disaster narrative (emphasis mine):
At the University of Michigan, scientists have cut apart and examined 145 fish from Lakes Huron and Erie, where some of the highest levels of microplastics in the world have been reported. These represented the six species most likely to consume microplastics. Under the microscope, we examined the gut of each. Not one contained a microbead of plastic. Not one.
Nature doesn't mention this study. Instead the editors mention another study that supports their anti-microbead agenda. Yet, if you actually read the study cited by Nature's editors, you’d see that the researchers never actually measured the amount of microbeads in waterways; instead they relied on data from waste water treatment plants. And guess what? That data also showed that microbeads aren't a huge problem. Take a look at this passage in the study (brackets mine):
Water collected by WWTPs [waste water treatment plants] goes through several treatment processes. As part of these processes, wastewater is sent to settling tanks to separate suspended solids (sludge) from the liquid phase (effluent) [effluent is the water the plant dumps back into the waterways]. Here, 95–99.9% of the microbeads may settle out into the sludge, leaving the remaining beads in the effluent.(1, 2) Studies report a range of 0–7 microbeads L–1 of final effluent,(1-3) which is often discharged directly to aquatic habitats.
Okay, so what the researchers are saying is that nearly all (95-99.9%) of the microbeads were captured and destroyed by the waste water treatment plant (it ends up in the sludge). What's left is 0-7 microbeads per liter of water. So, some liters might have zero microbeads, some might have two, five, six. No more than seven microbeads were found in a liter of water. It's also important to realize that the liter of water cited in the study is part of the effluent–the water that's returned to the larger body of water by the waste water treatment plant. So those seven microbeads are diluted further.
Not surprisingly, Nature managed to turn this into bad news. That's some impressive journalistic gymnastics at work there. Yet, Nature seems to admit that this research is flawed. In this paragraph, they mention that no one really knows what they're talking about when it comes to microbeads and dead fish.
The consequences of this ubiquitous plastic for marine species, marine ecosystems and human health remain areas of active research. But the public and policymakers need not wait for detailed results before taking action.
That's right. Why wait to know the facts before banning something, right? Perhaps what the editors are really worried about is that science will prove microbeads aren't so bad after all. That's already happening (see Professor Burton's study above).
Nature needs to stick to good science and drop the environmental agenda. And they owe Jennifer Aniston an apology for their bullying editorial.