This fall a Texas dental hygienist, Trish Walvaren, rang alarm bells when she complained on her blog about finding plastic microbeads trapped under her patients’ gums. Yes, the tiny “crystal-like” bits found in toothpaste for decorative purposes only, are actually polyethylene, the same substance used to manufacture shopping bags that are believed by some researchers to never fully breakdown in the environment.
The story was picked up by local media and eventually made its way to the national forefront. In response to concern by hygienists, dentists, patients and environmentalists, the maker of one such toothpaste, Crest, Procter & Gamble now says that it will cease including polyethylene microbeads in their products and that all toothpastes containing the beads will be off the shelves by March of 2015.
The colored microbeads can cause staining or worse, when they become lodged in the pockets of the gums, they can lead to redness, puffiness, even bleeding, and eventually, receding gums. If you have used the product for years you might also be concerned that you have swallowed some of the polyethylene bits, which could become trapped in your digestive organs.
But it’s not only the risks to dental and overall health that are of concern. In 2012, research commissioned by the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit that aims to reduce plastic pollution, revealed an alarmingly large amount of plastic microbeads floating on the surface of the Great Lakes.
Since microbeads are less than one-fifth of an inch in diameter, they often pass through the filtration systems at wastewater treatment plants and end up floating in oceans, lakes, and other bodies of water. The plastic beads can be consumed by marine organisms, as well as fish and seabirds that feed at the surface, according to a 2009 journal article in Marine Pollution Bulletin. Larger animals may then consume these organisms, allowing the microbeads to accumulate up the food chain.