Tiny troublemakers and their big impact

UW-Superior research project sizes up the microbead effect

Tiny plastic particles in our cosmetic products are creating a big problem.

Microbeads are found in products like facial cleansers, body wash and toothpaste. Made of polyethylene or polypropylene, these minuscule spheres are small enough—a millimeter in diameter, or smaller—to pass through filters at water treatment plants, and end up in our waterways.

Not only are they non-biodegradable. They’re interfering in the food chain.

“The smaller particles of plastic resemble natural food, so fish are confused and ingest them,” explains Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

A bottle of face wash can contain as many as 300,000 microbeads. Research suggests that Lake Michigan has an average of 17,000 microbeads per square kilometer, while Lake Ontario has as many as 1.1 million.

Rios Mendoza has played a key role in the banning of microbeads—not just in Wisconsin, but across the United States. In December 2015, President Barack Obama signed into law the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, requiring cosmetic companies to phase out the most common types of microbeads starting in July 2017.

But until then, the tiny troublemakers are accumulating in waterways, with potentially serious consequences. Microbeads behave as sponges, absorbing toxic compounds such as pesticides and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

“If the fish ingest them, the toxic compounds in the plastics enter their systems—and the question is, what happens when we eat the fish?” says Rios Mendoza. “Are these toxins being passed down to us?”

Rios Mendoza is continuing her important research at UW-Superior, studying the presence and the effect of microbeads and microplastics in Lake Superior. Her research project is focusing on the St. Louis River estuary and Lake Superior itself—assessing various beaches, as well as and waste water treatment plant discharge in the Duluth-Superior area.

With the support of an Ecofootprint grant from Enbridge, she has recruited two students to assist her full-time in collecting samples of microplastics.

As part of the research project, Rios Mendoza and her team will examine samples of fish taken from Lake Superior—analyzing their intestines and stomachs for possible ingestion of microbeads or fragment plastics, and testing their toxicity.

Enbridge’s $85,000 grant also enabled the university to purchase a powerful piece of equipment—a micro-Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscope—to identify the type of polymer plastics found.

Enbridge’s three-year, $3-million Ecofootprint Grant Program, launched in spring 2015, provides funding to organizations that advance locally based environmental priorities in communities in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin along our Sandpiper and Line 3 Replacement projects.

Microbeads are a hot topic, and “this research opportunity allows students to be at the forefront of scientific research . . . estimating the impact this pollutant is having on the watershed, so restorative action can be taken,” says Cindy Finch, Enbridge’s senior public affairs advisor based in Duluth-Superior. 

(TOP PHOTO: Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, has played a key role in the banning of microbeads across the U.S.)