The Canadian government recently took action to ban microbeads, very small particles found in a variety of consumer and personal care products that may pose adverse environmental impacts in rivers, lakes, and oceans after they are washed down the drain.

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Specifically, the Canadian government proposes to designate microbeads as toxic substances and to develop regulations that would prohibit the manufacture, import, and sale of consumer and personal care products containing microbeads.

A thorough scientific review that included an analysis of over 140 scientific papers, as well as consultations with experts, revealed that the presence of microbeads in the environment may have long-term effects on biological diversity and ecosystems. A summary of key findings include:

  • Microbeads are synthetic polymer particles manufactured to be larger than 0.1 micrometer and smaller than or equal to 5 millimeters in size for specific purposes.
  • Microbeads are used in a range of applications, including personal care products such as skin care lotions, cosmetics, toothpastes, shampoos, exfoliating creams, and certain over‑the-counter drugs.
  • Microbeads enter the environment primarily through effluent from wastewater treatment plants as a result of products being released down the drain.
  • Microbeads are a contributor of plastic litter and have been measured in the Canadian environment.
  • Budget 2015 commits to provide $491.8 million over five years, beginning in 2016, to complete assessments of the remaining chemicals under the Chemicals Management Plan.
  • Since 2006, the Government of Canada has invested more than $219 million to support water-quality initiatives for the Great Lakes.

Environment Canada confirms that a number of manufacturers of microbead-containing consumer and personal care products already have committed to phase out the use of microbeads over the next few years. A recent survey of members of the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry & Fragrance Association (CCTFA) showed that five members already had stopped using mircobeads and another nine members committed to cease using microbeads by 2018-2019. In the U.S., the states of Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, and Wisconsin also have introduced legislation to eliminate use of microbeads in consumer and personal care products.

Environment Canada also will require certain businesses who import, export, or use more than 10 kilograms of microbeads to submit information on the categories of substances involved, including total quantities, concentrations, and number of units at issue.

This proposed order is yet another indication of the growing regulatory concern over potential environmental impacts of nanoparticles. Because of their very small size and diameter, microbeads end up going down the drain and are too small for filters in most wastewater treatment plants to catch. As a result, microbeads end up in rivers, lakes, and oceans, remain in the environment for a long time, and may be ingested by a range of organisms.