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Are plastic microbeads damaging Minnesota’s waters?

State pollution regulators are raising alarm that tiny plastic beads used in personal care products like facial scrubs and toothpaste are harming the inhabitants of Minnesota’s rivers and lakes.

Due to their small size, the non-biodegradable microbeads are washing through sewer systems and into the surface water, said Glenn Skuta, surface water monitoring section manager for the Pollution Control Agency.

Glenn Skuta, water monitoring section manager for the Pollution Control Agency, testifies in support of a bill sponsored by Rep. Rick Hansen, right, that would appropriate money for a study of plastic microbeads in surface water. Photo by Andrew VonBank.

“If you can picture the size of Abraham Lincoln’s eye on a penny, some of them are about that small,” Skuta testified on Tuesday in front of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee.  

Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) sponsors HF2101, which would appropriate $1,000 from the General Fund for the PCA to work with the University of Minnesota to investigate microbeads. The bill would direct the institutions to search through the existing research on the “potential impacts” on aquatic ecosystems and human health. It would also require the PCA commissioner to present the information to legislative environmental committees no later than Dec. 15, 2014.

Hansen’s bill was laid over for possible inclusion in the committee’s omnibus finance bill. Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls), the committee chair, said she expects the omnibus bill to be posted on Friday and reported out of her committee next Tuesday.

After microbeads escape the wastewater treatment plant, they float on the water and are consumed by fish and other small aquatic creatures.

House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee

“They can be ingested by very small organisms in the food chain,” Skuta said. “It then disrupts the food chain by starving those organisms, by making them feel essentially full so they don’t continue to eat or clogging their digestive system. It causes a problem at the lower levels of the food chain so there is not enough food for the higher organisms.”

Additionally, Skuta said, the beads absorb toxins like PCBs, which then get passed through the food chain.

Some state legislatures, including California and New York, have introduced legislation to ban the sale of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products. Major manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble, meanwhile, have said they are phasing plastic microbeads out of their products.

A companion, SF1881, sponsored by Sen. Dave Senjem (R-Rochester), awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee.

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