How microbeads and exfoliators pollute the Great Lakes and end up in the fish you eat

CLEVELAND - An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation revealed the surprising way popular cleansing products could affect the environment and your health.

During the summer of 2012, SUNY Fredonia scientist Sherri Mason and her students collected water samples from the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie.

She discovered tiny, plastic beads that appear to be identical to the microbeads found in exfoliating face and body products.

They're not part of nature and so nature doesn't know what to do with it,” said Mason.

Mason said microbeads travel through wastewater treatment plants and into Lake Erie.  Once there, Mason said, the microbeads attract toxins like PCBs and PAHS.  Fish mistake the microbeads for food. The dangerous chemicals accumulate in their tissues so when you eat the fish you ingest the dangerous chemicals.

"If you find something in water that shouldn't be there, then ultimately what you're looking at is what's in us,” she said.

"Does that mean you can’t eat you Lake Erie perch? No. But you should eat it in moderation,” said Dr. Gerald Maloney, a toxicologist at MetroHealth Medical Center.

Maloney said the chemicals pose a risk to human health.

"There is enough data between animal studies and some human studies to suggest that they can put you at increased risk for getting certain types of cancers,” said Maloney.

Mason is not the only one concerned about microbeads.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources recently began looking for microbeads and other plastic particles in Lake Erie.

Fisheries Biologist Supervisor Kevin Kayle took NewsChannel5 investigators onto Lake Erie to show how the department searches for plastic particles. They use a Manta trawl to skim the surface of the lake, drain it and collect the contents. The samples are then sent to scientists, like Mason, for testing.

Related: Vast improvements, but continuing concerns for Lake Erie fish

Kayle said scientists at the Fairport Harbor Fisheries Unit in Fairport Harbor also dissected approximately 600 fish last summer to search for microbeads.

Kayle said they did not find any of the tiny plastic particles.

“It doesn't mean they're not there ... Right now, the potential is there, but we haven't seen it realized in Lake Erie,” he said.

The beads have turned up in water at a Cleveland wastewater treatment plant.

CSU junior Heidi Bencin teamed up with Mason to conduct the first ever study of microbeads in wastewater from Northeast Ohio homes.

“We're trying to provide the link as to where those particles are coming from,” said Bencin.

Bencin gathers the samples from Westerly Wastewater Treatment Plant each week. She said she has found microbeads each time.

Photo Gallery : What's in the fish caught from Lake Erie? 

Corporations that manufacture products containing microbeads, including Unilever and Proctor and Gamble, have agreed to phase out microbeads.

Ohio Sen. Michael Skindell (D – District 23) says that’s not enough. “You’re eating toxic fish,” he said. "We need to make sure there's a complete ban of the microbeads."

In April, Skindell introduced legislation to prohibit microbeads in products.

Lawmakers in four other states, including New York and California, have introduced similar proposals.

“For me, as a scientist, to have my work being used in such a way and getting so much attention to create change, to better our environment, our world, that's fairly encouraging to me,”  said Mason.

Mason said there are natural alternatives, like sugar or salt, manufacturers could use instead of plastic.

“Why are we designing products that are meant to be used for minutes out of a material that is going to last forever?,” she said.

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