Billions of tiny plastic beads are polluting the Great Lakes, and a U.S. scientist has traced them to grooming products such as facial scrubs and toothpastes that are washed daily down our bathroom drains.

Marcus Eriksen, research director of the 5 Gyres Institute, had spent several years studying microplastics — small pieces of plastic about the size of a fingernail — that get caught in slow-moving currents in the ocean, where they are eaten by wildlife such as fish, sometimes causing the animals to die.

When he and his colleagues sampled the water in Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Erie last year, to their surprise they found much smaller bits of plastic — about a third of a millimetre in diameter or the size of a grain of sand.

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The microbeads are made of the plastics polyethylene or polypropylene and are about a third of a millimetre in diameter. (As It Happens/CBC)

"But there were thousands of them," he told CBC Radio's As It Happens. "In fact, I found more in the Great Lakes than in any sample anywhere in the world's oceans."

The highest concentrations were found in Lake Erie. Lake Superior was less polluted.

At first, the researchers weren't quite sure what the beads were. Then they went to a pharmacy and bought some consumer products such as facial scrubs and toothpaste, and compared microbeads put in those products as a gentle exfoliant or abrasive to the ones found in the lakes. The microbeads are sometimes listed separately, or appear in the ingredients as "polyethylene" or "polypropylene."

"The ones in the store, under a scanning electron microscope, matched the same size, colour, texture, and shape as the microbeads in our samples in the Great Lakes," Eriksen said in an interview with CBC Thunder Bay's Superior Morning.

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Researchers from 5 Gyres Institute found the highest concentrations of plastic microbeads in Lake Erie. They will be sampling Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario this summer. (Ryan Hodnett/Wikimedia Commons)

To estimate how big a problem the beads might be, the researchers emptied an entire tube of Johnson & Johnson facial scrub Clean & Clear, put it through a sieve, and collected a tablespoon of white powder made up of microbeads. When they counted the beads, they amounted to about 330,000 per tube.

"That means for every three tubes of this one facial scrub, you've got about a million microbeads washing down the drain."

It's possible fish are eating the pellets, believing them to be eggs, he added. That's worrisome, because plastics tend to absorb pollutants such as PCBs, pesticides and motor oil. The pellets could therefore be poisoning the small fish that larger fish then prey on, and the larger fish are consumed by humans, posing a human health risk.

Not removed by water treatment

In Thunder Bay, EcoSuperior executive director Ellen Mortfield said the plastics can bypass the water treatment process.

"Current treatment systems aren't designed to take out a lot of these things," she said. "Not only physical items, like micro-plastic beads, but a lot of different classes of chemicals are not removed."

Part of the problem is that the beads float, and water treatment processes aren't designed to deal with floating matter.

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There are about 330,000 plastic microbeads, about a tablespoon's worth, in a tube of facial scrub.

The researchers took their data and their concerns to major manufacturers L'Oreal, Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson, and Proctor & Gamble. They also pointed out that competing facial scrubs from companies such as Burt's Bees and St. Ives use alternatives to microbeads, such as apricot pits and cocoa husks.

"Typically, when environmental organizations and scientists engage companies, sometimes it gets heated and the discussions last for years," Eriksen said.

"But in this case, I was really impressed to see that we took science ... to the companies and, without having to spend time and money involved in a policy solution, the companies themselves chose to solve it on their own."

L'Oreal, the Body Shop and Johnson & Johnson all committed to phasing out plastic microbeads by 2015, and Proctor & Gamble said it would do so by 2017.

Mortfield said this new research underscores the need for everyone to be aware of what goes down the drain.

"It kind of begs the question as to why we need that sort of stuff," she said. "I've heard those micro-beads are also in toothpaste, and I'm not sure we need those. Baking soda [as an alternative] has been around for a long time."

Mortfield said EcoSuperior encourages people to read ingredients on personal care products, and check other sources of information such as the Safe Cosmetics Database.

Eriksen said products that go right down the sink are particularly environmentally harmful applications of plastics.

"Plastic isn't bad," he added. "It's the way we use it sometimes. Better design — I think that's the solution."

The research team from 5 Gyres is sampling the water for plastics in Lakes Michigan and Ontario this summer.