Plastic microbeads from your toothpaste can lodge in gums, may end up as pollutants in Colo. rivers

DENVER - Plastic microbeads from toothpaste and cleansers are making their way down drains and into the South Platte River.

In the first known test for the small plastic beads in the river, CALL7 Investigators hired experts to test water samples. The results confirmed that the plastic microbeads from toothpastes, face washes, body washes, shampoos, eyeliners, lip glosses and deodorants had indeed made it through the state's filtration systems and into the river. 

-- Watch the story tonight on 7NEWS at 10 p.m. --

Before our test, Greg Cronin, an aquatic ecologist and professor of integrated biology at CU Denver, told CALL7 Investigator Theresa Marchetta, "I'm sure if you went downstream of the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, where basically the sewage system for Denver,  where all these microbeads pass through…you would probably be able to find these microbeads."

He added, "People might not have just looked yet."

Cronin was correct. We found no one is testing for microbeads in Colorado. So we did our own test, sending water samples collected from the South Platte River to a specialized lab in Marietta, Ga., where they confirmed "polypropylene," or plastic was floating in the water.

Polyethylene and polypropylene are the same types of plastic used to make milk jugs, bottles and other common household containers.

The Water Quality Control Division declined our request for an interview, but an email from Meghan Trubee, spokeswoman for Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said,

"Drinking water treatment would capture and remove microbeads during the treatment process eliminating them from drinking water supplies.  At this time, our work has not focused on this emerging issue nor have microbeads been brought to our attention specifically. Our research regarding microbeads reveals that this is an emerging issue."

During this year's legislative session in Colorado there was no proposed legislation to address the micro-plastic pollution in our waterways. Meanwhile, six states have either pending or approved legislation banning or significantly minimizing the use of microbeads. Earlier this month, for example, the New York State Assembly passed a bill banning microbeads by a vote of 108-0.

-- Finding microbeads --

Some of the microbeads are easy to identify, like the ones found in face scrubs or toothpastes. Crest says the plastic is added to several of that brand's toothpastes as "a safe, inactive ingredient used to provide color."

"I've always made the assumption those crystals have something to do with flavor or cleaning your teeth," said Lesli O'Keefe, a Littleton mom who spoke with Marchetta.

"What if I told you it was plastic?" asked Marchetta. 

"It's scary!  That shocks me!" said Marci Bay another Littleton mom. "Plastic beads on your teeth…kinda creepy."

Other mothers expressed a similar surprise about the plastic in their toothpaste when CALL7 brought it to their attention, but the Federal Drug Administration has approved microbead use in personal care products.

"About 20 of us had been remarking that we'd been seeing these blue bits in people's mouths and particularly under their gum line," said dental hygienist Trisha Waravan.

Waravan picks the plastic particles out of people's gums frequently but wasn't sure what they were until she and other hygienists isolated the plastic pieces from toothpaste, even trying to dissolve them in acetone.

-- Impact of the plastic beads --

"Plastics don't degrade. They actually just break into smaller particles of plastics," said Cronin, the aquatic ecologist and biology professor. "The particles can be as small as a micron, the size of a bacterial cell, so that you wouldn’t be able to see them with the naked eye."

According to Cronin, these plastics by nature attract toxic compounds like pesticides, and, ironically, are often used to remove harmful chemicals from water, which leads to other concerns.

"That same property causes these plastics to absorb these same toxins in the environment, so when an animal ingests it they're getting extremely high concentrations of these pesticides and other industrial chemicals," said Cronin.  Then humans consume the toxins when they eat the fish or animals who have ingested the plastics.

Manufacturers using the microbeads in toothpaste readily admit the plastic serves no real purpose. There's no flavor, nor any cleaning benefits. Lobbying efforts have created a greater awareness of this issue and some manufacturers set timelines to remove the plastics from their products.

Procter and Gamble, the manufacturer of Crest, stated in an email to CALL7 Investigators, "We are discontinuing our limited use of micro plastic beads as scrub materials in personal care products as soon as alternatives are qualified."

Cronin says if you're not thinking about microbeads, you should be.

"Yes we should care," said Cronin. "What we should do is stop using them in the products, especially products that get flushed down the sink, immediately."

O'Keefe, the mother from Littleton, said it best; "If it's not doing us any good, and it could be potentially harming either us or the environment, why use it?"

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