Protect the food chain by voting with your wallets

Consumers in Hong Kong should check ingredients to see if beauty and cleaning products contain potentially dangerous plastic microbeads

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 July, 2016, 12:27am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 July, 2016, 12:27am

Plastics are harmful to the environment, but they may also be bad for our health. Tiny beads used in beauty and cleaning products slip through waste water treatment systems and end up in waterways, where toxic materials adhere to them. Marine life consume them and through the food chain, they can end up in our bodies. What danger they pose has not been definitively shown by studies, although the risk is enough that we should stop using items that contain them.

The US and Canada have already imposed bans and the European Union is looking into similar action. Some major cosmetics companies have already stopped using microbeads or plan to phase them out. That firms such as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and L’Oreal that manufacture such products did not object when American lawmakers approved restrictions last December is telling. From next July, items ranging from soaps and facial scrubs to toothpaste and nail polish in the world’s biggest consumer market will have to use natural alternatives.

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By themselves, the beads do not pose a health risk. But in water, like plastic when it breaks down, they can absorb dangerous toxins like the pesticide DDT and chemicals such as PCBs. A survey of anchovies caught in Tokyo Bay found 80 per cent had plastic particles in their digestive systems. Laboratory experiments with European perch larvae concluded exposure inhibited hatching of fertilised eggs, stunted growth, reduced activity levels and increased susceptibility to predators.

The health impact to people eating affected seafood is still being researched. But buildups in the body of toxins are dangerous and have to be avoided. Bans could push firms to stop making products with microbeads, but it will take time for laws to be put in place and consequently, for the tiny particles to disappear from the market. It is all about awareness and a recent Hong Kong Baptist University survey found most adults knew little about microbeads. The fastest solution lies in consumers checking ingredients to see if plastics like polyethylene or polypropylene are listed.