An extremely small plastic pollutant poses a big threat to the health of the Great Lakes and the state's environment. And some Illinois lawmakers are looking to take action against the problem.
At issue are the super-tiny plastic beads used in hundreds of personal cosmetic products like facial wash, body scrubs and even toothpaste. According to scientists, tens of millions of these little plastic particles have made their way into the Great Lakes.
The cosmetic microbeads, which are less than 5 millimeters in size and commonly used to help with exfoliation, often get washed down household drains. Because the plastic beads are so small, they are not captured during the water treatment process, allowing them to get into waterways.
"There's no way to recover those materials once they're out in open waters," said Olga Lyandres, research manager at the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "Once they enter the environment, they stay there."
The pinhead-sized plastic bits, which do not biodegrade, can harm fish and other aquatic life when ingested. The exfoliating beads can soak in PCBs, the industrial pollutants polychlorinated biphenyls, and other harmful toxins already present in the environment. As such, scientists worry the pollutants carried by the microbeads could invade the rungs of the food chain all the way up to humans. A number of unanswered questions, however, still remain in this area of research, Lyandres explained.
"But the fact that they're just these hot spots of chemicals floating around, or potentially being buried in sediment, is a grave concern," she stressed.
State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago) is also troubled by these tiny contaminants. She is the chief sponsor of recently-introduced legislation, SB 2727, to impose a statewide ban on cosmetic microbeads. The state lawmaker's proposal was introduced March 14, just a few days before the BP Lake Michigan oil spill that occurred on Monday afternoon.
Under Steans' proposed measure, co-sponsored by state Sen. Linda Holmes (D-Plainfield), no person in Illinois "shall produce, manufacture, sell, or offer for sale any personal cosmetic product that contains intentionally-added microbeads."
Those who do not comply with the proposed regulations would be fined up to $2,500 for a first-time offense and each day that the violation occurs. Subsequent violations would carry a fine of up to $5,000.
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) is looking to introduce a companion bill in the House.
The minuscule plastic particles, which are labeled on product ingredient lists as "polyethylene" or "polypropylene", have been found in Illinois water bodies, specifically Lake Michigan, according to Steans' legislation. Cosmetic microbeads have also appeared in large-scale quantities in the New York waters of Lake Eerie as well as the Los Angeles River and the Pacific Ocean, among other places.
The Five Gyres Institute, a research organization focused on reducing plastic water pollution, surveyed the presence of microplastics in Lake Michigan last year.
The findings showed "enormous concentrations of these plastic microbeads on the lake surface," said Stiv Wilson, Five Gyres' policy director.
"These plastic beads, traced to personal-care products, resemble fish eggs and easily end up in the environment," Wilson stressed. "Why are we corrupting our fisheries at the base of the food chain for a vanity product where natural and market viable alternatives already exist?"
Natural exfoliating substitutes, which a number of businesses already use in their cosmetic products, include things like ground almonds, oatmeal and pumice.
Awareness of the environmental hazards associated with these plastic microbeads is growing. Lawmakers in New York and California are currently weighing similar statewide exfoliating-bead bans, and some companies have already vowed to do away with the plastic bits in their personal-care items following increased pressure from environmental groups and consumers.
Procter and Gamble, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive are among several companies that have recently agreed to phase out the use of the plastic pieces in their products. Johnson and Johnson, which is also working to eliminate the scrubbing beads from its toiletries, has "stopped developing new products containing polyethylene microbeads and have been conducting environmental safety assessments of other alternatives," according to its website.
The recent response from some major businesses to discontinue their microbead use means, "It's looking like we might actually be able to get (the statewide ban) passed," Steans said during a public, virtual town hall meeting Wednesday evening to update constituents on legislative matters.
But microbeads are just one part of the larger plastic pollution issue in the Great Lakes. Plastic bags, food containers and other packaging are also big sources of water pollution. Like microbeads, the bags and other plastics can absorb chemical pollutants. Plastic bags, which can entangle wildlife, eventually break down into fragments small enough for fish and other marine life to ingest.
In Chicago, the push for a citywide ban on plastic carryout bags at the point of sale has picked up steam. The Chicago City Council's Committee on Health and Environmental Protection is slated to vote on the proposed ordinance, sponsored by Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), in mid-April. A number of municipalities across the country already outlaw the bags.
More on the BP Lake Michigan oil spill
As if plastic pollution isn't enough, it has been reported that at least 420 gallons of crude oil spilled into Lake Michigan earlier this week due to a malfunction at BP's Whiting refinery in Indiana.
Lyman Welch, water quality program director at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said the spilled oil appears to be been contained now, and the leak has stopped. It is still unclear, however, exactly how much oil made its way into the body of water. The oil that was spilled was a combination of light and heavy oil, the latter of which can sink to the bottom of the lake, making it difficult to remove. Efforts to remove the oil are currently underway, and the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency are overseeing the cleanup operations.
"BP has told us that their crews have recovered the majority of the oil that was visible on the water and on the shoreline," Welch said. "They've been using vacuum trucks and a broom to contain the surface oil, but we're still waiting for details on what oil might have sunk and could be on the bottom of the lake."
Meanwhile, local and federal officials have called on BP for a full accounting of the cause of the spill, the volume of oil that was released into the lake and what work the company is doing to prevent similar incidents in the future, Welch said.
In the event of an oil spill, birds and other wildlife can become coated in the oil that floats on the surface or washes ashore, subsequently making it hard for them to breath. Oil dumped into the environment is not good for marine life either.
No reports have been issued yet related to the BP spill's potential impact on wildlife, marine life or human health, Welch said. No information released thus far suggests a threat to drinking water supplies in the region due to the spill, he added.
"But this is a stark reminder that even with the latest upgraded refinery, we still experience accidents and oil spills, and we need to be vigilant to protect the great resource that Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes provide," Welch stressed.
Lisa Nikodem, campaign director at Environment Illinois, issued the following statement Thursday to Progress Illinois about the BP Lake Michigan oil spill:
Lake Michigan is a vital resource -- providing drinking water for millions of Chicagoans; boating, fishing, and recreational activities for millions of visitors to its shores in four states, and pristine habitat for fish and wildlife. BP's latest oil spill reminds us of the vulnerability of our Great Lake and the ongoing need for better protection for the lake and the rivers and streams that feed into it.
And 25 years ago this week after the atrocious ExxonValdez spill in Alaska, it seems we haven't learned. Both of these spills are a stark reminder of the inherent danger of our continued dependence on fossil fuels. Drilling, refining, and burning oil poses a significant threat to our environment that we can't ignore. We must protect Lake Michigan and transition away from dirty energy sources to truly renewable ones like wind and solar power.
Image: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
UPDATE 1 (6:13 p.m.): BP is upping the estimated amount of crude oil that made its way into Lake Michigan as a result of the oil spill that occurred earlier this week. Now, the company is reporting that 39 barrels, or some 1,638 gallons, of oil were discharged into the lake.
Meanwhile, earlier today U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) have requested a meeting with the head of BP America to discuss the Lake Michigan BP oil spill. The lawmakers also outlined some questions and problems they have with the way the situation has been dealt with this far. Here is a look at the full letter the lawmakers sent to the BP America CEO:
March 27, 2014
Mr. John Minge
CEO, BP America Inc.
501 Westlake Park Blvd
Houston, TX 77079-2604
Dear Mr. Minge:
We are deeply concerned about this week's oil spill at the BP Whiting Refinery on the shore of Lake Michigan. We would appreciate meeting with you to discuss BP's plan to manage the potential public health and environmental threats to surrounding communities related to the contamination of Lake Michigan.
Any unanticipated spill is cause for concern, but given the Whiting refinery's recent expansion of its operations to double the amount of heavy oil sands being processed, this spill raises questions about the long-term safety and reliability of BP's new, expanded production at Whiting. It is in all of our best interests, including Lake Michigan and the communities and industries that rely on it, to ensure that this greater processing capacity will do no harm to Lake Michigan.
While the cause of the spill has been determined and efforts are underway to clean up the oil, we remain troubled by certain aspects of the incident:
* Four days after the spill, BP has only now given estimates on the amount of oil that was spilled. However, more detail about its chemical composition still needs to be provided. This information is critical for authorities as they attempt to asses any potential harmful effects caused by the spill. When does BP expect to release this data?
* Lake Michigan provides drinking water to more than seven million people and several Illinois towns intake their water from locations that are near the spilled oil. What is BP doing to ensure the drinking water for these cities has not been contaminated?
* Current clean-up efforts have focused on oil sitting on the surface of the Lake. What has been done to determine how much oil might have settled on the floor of Lake Michigan? What assurance is BP prepared to give that all the oil is removed from the Lake?
Lake Michigan is a critically important ecosystem, not just for Illinois, but for the entire Great Lakes region. Protecting the Lake must be a priority. We urge you to explore every avenue to expeditiously recover any spilled oil, remediate the damage where possible, and minimize future threats the Whiting refinery poses to this irreplaceable resource. We look forward to meeting with you to discuss these concerns.
Richard J. Durbin
United States Senator
United States Senator