Government to Consider Microbeads Ban


The Law Of... environmental awareness

After staunch pressure from campaigners, a senior MP has revealed that the Government will consider a ban on plastic microbeads in consumer cosmetic products.

Microbeads should face ban

George Eustice, Minister of State for Farming, Food and the Marine Environment, announced that the Government are now openly considering moves to impose an outright ban on the use of microbeads in the UK.

During a meeting of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee this week, MPs considered evidence about the effect microplastics has on the environment and Mr Eustice confirmed that they will "support other EU Member States in calling for the European Commission to come up with proposals to ban their use in cosmetics and detergents."

The admission represents a direct U-turn from the Government, who had previously suggested that they would encourage the cosmetics industry to voluntarily remove the potentially dangerous microplastics from their products.

Helen Grady – Partner and Industrial Disease expert at Simpson Millar LLP – explains why the welcomed move to ban potentially toxic materials may be a result of learning lessons from the past.

What are microbeads and why have campaigners called for them to be banned?

Microbeads are tiny plastic particles that are used in a range of personal care products – including soap, toothpaste, and body washes – which are designed to be washed down the drain after use.

These microbeads came into use with good intentions – as it was a way for the beauty industry to make use of recycled plastics, considerably reducing the sector's carbon footprint.

However, like many new materials that are widely adopted by an industry, proper research was not conducted on the long-lasting effects of the material – and the issue with microbeads arise when they're washed down drains.

As most are not picked up by filtration plants, due to their minute size, microbeads are ending up in the sea and in our waterways.

Evidence submitted during one of the Committee's meetings highlighted that the most significant risk to the marine environment from microbeads is the fact that chemicals and additives can be attached to the microbeads, with these potentially harmful chemicals then being ingested by marine wildlife.

Research undertaken by the UN highlighted that plastics in the ocean – which is the wider issue relating to microbeads – often contain chemicals added during manufacturing and can absorb contaminants, such as pesticides, from the surrounding seawater.

The same UN report points to the fact that there is emerging evidence of transfer of chemicals from ingested plastics into marine wildlife tissue, which can in turn be ingested by humans through seafood.

Helen explains why this could see a resurgence of a well-known danger:

"As they absorb toxins through every stage of their usage, microbeads can pick up some well-known toxins that we have fought to eradicate from our ecosystem."

"My main concern is asbestos, which we have campaigned long and hard to remove from our daily lives – if the use of microbeads continues it could see a direct introduction of asbestos into our food chain."

"With the continued prevalence of asbestos in our buildings, the chances of cross-contamination between asbestos and microbeads could be high. If a microbead was to come into contact with asbestos and absorb a toxic dust particle during its journey through our drainage systems, before being ingested by marine wildlife, then we could find this well-established danger landing on our dinner plate."

What's the scale of the issue?

Despite action to curb the use of microbeads around the world, the issue is already reaching alarming levels.

Microbeads are part of a wider epidemic that see about 8 million tonnes of plastic entering the sea every year, with marine life in most danger of being effected – it is predicted that 663 species of marine wildlife are affected by plastic pollution through ingestion or entanglement.

It's predicted that thousands of cleansing products already contain the micro-plastic particle abrasives, which are used as exfoliant in the majority of products they appear in.

Preventing exposure to other toxins would be impossible, so banning the use of microbeads is the only way to ensure that they do not cause further harm, as Helen explains:

"The chance of microbeads coming in to contact with toxic materials in their cycle is high, and it is important that we try and remove them from our ecosystem all together."

"Some toxic material, like asbestos, lies dormant until disturbed - so the thought of small particles that can become a vehicle for illnesses like mesothelioma floating around our ecosystem is very concerning."

Have we heeded lessons from the past?

While the Government have been slow to act on the issue of microbeads, the recent steps towards a ban on their usage is a positive result for campaigners, especially considering the UK's slow response to other dangers in the past.

Helen said that the topic of microbeads was reminiscent of the asbestos conversation that took part decades ago:

"When microbeads first came to my attention I saw a direct link to my specialist subject, and much like asbestos, it seemed like it was accepted knowledge that microbeads were dangerous to the public at large."

"As other countries imposed bans on the usage of microbeads I saw the inactivity of the UK as a deliberate ignorance of past lessons, as it seemed we had not learned from our mistakes when we were slow to draft legislation banning the use of asbestos."

"Our slow response to asbestos caused us to have one of the highest mesothelioma rates in the world, and I held serious concerns that we would face similar health issues from a continued usage of microbeads."

Plymouth and Greenpeace Take Fight to Government

Microbeads have been a hot topic of conversation since a number of US states moved to ban their usage last year.

In recent weeks a number of microbead campaigns have come to fruition, with a Greenpeace petition reaching over 312,000 signatures and being presented to Government.

Meanwhile, marine groups in Cornwall wrote an open letter to the Government, which called for an immediate ban on plastic microbeads being used in cosmetics. This coalition of 30 environmental organisations represented the concerns of tens of thousands of people and included the opinion of experts in marine biology.

Helen praised the work of these campaigners, saying:

"In recent weeks we have seen co-ordinated appeals to the Government on this issue and it really seems like the message has gotten through to the policy makers."

"Having such a large petition come through from Greenpeace, almost directly after receiving a letter from a coalition of 30 environmental organisations must have taken its toll on the Government, whose opinion on microbeads has taken a sudden U-turn."

"Without these well organised campaigns the Government would not have taken concerns on board, so the effect of these groups cannot be downplayed when we talk about this environmental success."

Getting advice on the dangers of illnesses

If you are concerned about the effect possible toxins and harmful materials have on your life – whether the chance of infection is at home or at work – you should seek advice from subject experts that have experience of dealing with industrial disease cases.

Our team of experts have a proven track record in handling cases of illnesses caused by harmful materials and are on hand to provide support if you're concerned about the risks of industrial disease.

To find out how we could help you please make a no-obligation enquiry or call freephone: 0808 129 3320.

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