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Microbead bans: Throwing out science with the seawater

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Canada and the UK are the latest countries to enact bans on microbeads – small exfoliating beads found in personal care products. But what little scientific basis there was for doing so has just been exposed as a fraud, resulting in the retraction of the only paper that claims microbeads are a significant threat to marine life.

When baseless fears are whipped up by environmentalists, politicians are quick to capitalise by introducing new laws and regulations to pacify the fearful public. This plays into the myth that politicians and the regulatory state are the only things standing between corporate greed and environmental catastrophe.

The idea that regulation ought to be based on sound science is thrown out of the window, and many such rules turn out to achieve extremely little, if anything at all. They can even be counterproductive.

So it is with the recent trend to ban microbeads, small plastic balls used in bath products as a scrubbing aid or exfoliating abrasive. There are campaigns worldwide to prohibit their use, on the grounds that they end up in rivers, lakes and the sea, where they might be ingested by fish who mistake them for algae or plankton. Many countries and territories have rushed to impose legislation prohibiting their use, the latest examples being Canada and the United Kingdom.

An article on microbeads in the South African edition of Popular Mechanics reads like a press release for LUSH Cosmetics North America, which describes its products as handmade, Fair Trade, organic and 100% vegetarian. This gives LUSH an obvious commercial motive to support a campaign against a manufacturing technique used by its industrial-scale rivals, but the article does not bother to explain such vested interests.

The article also uncritically supports the global campaign against microbeads, despite admitting that “the exact impact of the beads is still being researched”, and the campaign is based entirely on the “growing concern” of unidentified people. Who can doubt the enormity of a number like eight trillion, offered by the article without any context, comparison or scale? Who could doubt that a ban on something that some people are concerned might harm the environment is a good thing?

The main claim of the Beat the Microbead campaign is: “Washing your face or brushing your teeth can harm the ocean, yourself and your children.”

However, despite their “growing concern”, there is little evidence that microbeads are particularly harmful to fish, and there is no evidence whatsoever that they pose a risk to human health. Nor is there any indication that eliminating them will make a substantial difference in the health of the marine environment.

The most famous scientific paper that claims microbeads harm the development of fish larvae, published by Peter Eklöv and Oona Lönnstedt in 2016, was retracted in 2017. The authors have been found guilty of misconduct in research for intentionally fabricating data.

Another study into the impact of microbeads on sea bass larvae found that the stuff mostly goes straight through the digestive system. Contrary to the Eklöv/Lönnstedt paper, it concludes that microbeads have “limited impact on traits linked to fitness” in fish.

There is a fair amount of research on the occurrence of microplastics in fish, but that covers all small plastic particles, of which microbeads make up only a tiny fraction. Depending on the species and location, between 12% and 77% of fish show evidence of having ingested microplastic particles, although on average, those fish ingested only about two tiny particles each. Most studies do not demonstrate the occurrence of microbeads among other ingested microplastics. The one that did, finding 7.3% of ingested microplastics in a fish sample were microbeads, was conducted in the waters of Tokyo Bay, a major urban area not representative of the wider marine environment.

One of these studies found that 93.4% of the plastic that fish in the English Channel ingest consists of fibres such as polyamide and rayon, derived mostly from synthetic clothing material.

It is known that ingested microplastic can carry very small quantities of toxic chemicals to fish, whose livers then have to process this contamination. So, in principle, microbeads could cause some harm, on the same grounds that all the other plastic in the ocean can cause some harm.

But let’s get some perspective, courtesy of G. Allen Burton, professor and director of the Co-operative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research at the University of Michigan, editor-in-chief of the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, past president of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, and author of over 180 peer-reviewed publications. (The point is he’s not just some guy who wrote a letter.)

Burton reports that most scientific studies find microplastic concentrations (of which microbeads are a small fraction) to be very low compared to algae concentrations. He says a study near a major Chicago wastewater plant found that algae outnumbered microplastics by a billion to one. Most studies find one or fewer plastic particle per 100 litres of water. This hardly sounds like a crisis for fish.

He also points out research that shows 95% of all microplastics on the sea surface derive from the paints and fibre-reinforced plastics used on ship’s hulls. Combined with the knowledge that the majority of microplastic ingested by fish is from synthetic clothing, it becomes clear that microbeads cannot possibly be a significant contributor to the problem of plastic ingestion by fish.

Burton does not conclude that microbeads pose no hazard at all, but he does argue that there are far greater sources of water pollution, with far more serious impacts on fish. Citing the US Environmental Protection Agency, he lists them in order: pathogens, nutrients, metals, organic enrichment/O2 depletion, sediments, polychlorinated biphenyls, mercury, acidity, temperature, turbidity, and pesticide. Microplastics aren’t even on this list.

Microbead bans may be popular, but they will do extremely little – if anything at all – to protect the environment. They do, however, give politicians an opportunity to look like they’re “doing something”, which gullible voters who never read the science tend to believe. It also gives them a reason to impose new regulations, which constrains economic activity and creates new excuses for extracting financial penalties from companies.

The bigger the regulatory state and the more hobbled the free market, the happier are our left-leaning NGOs, such as the 91 organisations which Beat the Microbead claims to have as supporters. They also love the fund-raising potential of appearing to be successful, even if their “success” in getting regulations passed does not translate into any positive impact for the environment of human health.

As we’ve seen, microbeads are insignificant as an environmental pollutant, and there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that they can or do pose a threat to human health. The entire anti-microbead campaign is based on rank dishonesty and retracted science. Free people deserve better laws. DM


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