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Microbeads threaten Great Lakes

| Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, 7:21 p.m.

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — An organization representing more than 100 cities in the United States and Canada asked federal and industry officials on Tuesday for action on the recently discovered problem of “microplastic” pollution in the Great Lakes.

During the past two years, scientists have reported finding thousands of plastic bits — some visible only under a microscope — in the lakes that make up almost one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water.

Scientists believe some are abrasive “microbeads” used in personal care products such as facial and body washes, deodorants and toothpaste. They're so minuscule that they flow through screens at waste treatment plants and wind up in the lakes, where fish and aquatic birds might eat them, mistaking them for fish eggs. They could absorb toxins as well.

“Even though you cannot see them, they pose a very real threat to human and wildlife health,” said John Dickert, mayor of Racine, Wis., and secretary-treasurer of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.

The group sent letters to the Environmental Protection Agency and its counterpart, Environment Canada, asking what they plan to do about the problem. David Ullrich, the organization's executive director, acknowledged it could take years to develop a crackdown on microplastics.

In the meantime, his group is sending letters to 11 companies that use microplastics, asking them to switch to biodegradable alternatives. Some are doing so. Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson have said they'll phase out microbeads, and L'Oreal said it won't develop products that include them.

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