Toxic chemicals from plastic microbeads are leaching into fish, scientists say

By Lachlan Williams and Aeden Ratcliffe

New research shows microbeads, tiny pieces of plastic found in many cosmetic products, are contaminating fish with toxic chemicals.

Scientists from RMIT and Hainan University in China say toxins built up on the surface of the microbeads can pass into the fish that eat them.

“We know generally that if someone eats a fish, they risk eating any pollution that may be in the fish,” lead investigator and RMIT environmental scientist Dr Bradley Clarke said.

The researchers say products using microbeads should be removed from shelves immediately.

“All plastic attracts and concentrates toxic chemicals when in water, but this problem is compounded with microbeads because of their size and surface area,” Dr Clarke said.

The tiny beads are heavily used in everyday health and beauty products such as toothpastes and exfoliating body scrubs.

When the creams wash down the drain, the plastic microbeads stay intact when entering waterways.

The study, published in science journal Environmental Science &; Technology, showed up to 12.5 per cent of the chemical pollutants on the microbeads can pass into the fish that eat them.

Dr Clarke said the study was the first conclusive evidence microbeads were capable of leaching toxic chemical pollutants into fish.

“Our research shows for the first time persistent organic pollutants accumulate in the tissue of fish that eat microbeads,” he said.

Eight trillion microbeads wash into waterways every day in the US alone.

As part of the report, researchers fed microbeads from a facial scrub to Murray River rainbow fish.

Microbeads were spiked with environmentally-relevant pollutants known to biomagnify up the food chain in marine animals.

The study concluded pollutants on the microbeads leached into the tissue of the fish.

Many Australian companies are working with the federal government to phase out the use of microbeads by no later than July 2018.

About the author

Aeden Ratcliffe

About the author

Lachlan Williams