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Proposed microbead legislation could prevent plastic pollution in Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River

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First of its kind legislation proposed by the state Attorney General’s office could ban certain shampoos, facial scrubs and toothpastes in the state in order to reduce the number of small plastic pieces going into the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.

Researchers like Sherri A. Mason, an associate professor of chemistry at SUNY Fredonia, say the millimeter-sized plastic pieces, also referred to as microbeads, can cause massive problems across food chains.

Slipping through treatment plants, the plastic can bond with longstanding industrial chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls, poisoning organisms as small as zooplankton, eaten in the thousands by larger aquatic organisms.

“It moves up the food chain,” Ms. Mason said. With the north country’s fishing industry, she said the plastic pieces could endanger human consumers as well.

The Microbead-Free Waters Act would ban the creation and sale of personal care products containing plastic particles smaller than five millimeters. If approved, the legislation would make the state the first in the country to ban the inclusion of the microbeads.

“From the Great Lakes to the Hudson River to Long Island Sound, our commitment to protecting and restoring New York’s waters is among our most important responsibilities,” said Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, in a statement. “New York’s environmental leadership continues today with the introduction of common-sense legislation that will stop the flow of plastic from ill-designed beauty products into our vital waters, preserving our natural heritage for future generations.”

The attorney general’s office said the microbeads are found in more than 100 products, replacing natural alternatives like ground walnut shells and sea salt.

“These products, they don’t need to exist,” Ms. Mason said. “It’d be different if you made some product where there is no alternative. There are alternatives.”

Consumers can determine if their products have the microbeads by looking for ingredients like polyethylene or polypropylene.

Ms. Mason said the plastic pollution has been researched extensively in ocean bodies, but in the past few years the research has moved to freshwater systems like the Great Lakes. Recently, the professor and other researchers did some initial sampling on the St. Lawrence Seaway, and found contamination levels similar to what she uncovered in Lake Erie.

“We are seeing impacts here,” said Stephanie G. Weiss, assistant director of Save the River, based in Clayton. Ms. Weiss said the group supported the legislation, given the plastic levels found in the river.

“That’s obviously a situation that causes real concern,” she said.

Despite her support of the microbead ban, Ms. Mason indicated the difficulty in stopping the microbead contamination. One reason for that, she said was the long lifespan of the plastic.

“We’re contaminating something that’s absolutely necessary for life with something that could stay there for 500 years,” Ms. Mason said. “That doesn’t seem logical.”

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