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A technical review panel was convened by STAC to review the issue at the request of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, an advisory body of legislators from Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania to inform microbead legislation that the commission was promoting in those three states.
“This report is a synthesis of the best available science, and it points to research and data gaps that will help us understand impacts on the Bay and inform policy and legislation,” says Lisa Wainger, a researcher at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and STAC chair. The panel concluded “the probability of risk is high,” and called for “stopping persistent microplastics at the source.”
While more research is needed to fully understand the cumulative impacts on the Bay ecosystem, Wainger says, “It’s important to reduce the stresses that are controllable in order to increase capacity to be resilient to threats that are less controllable, like climate change.”
President Obama in December signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. The legislation bans by 2018 the use of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics and toothpaste. But the legislation does not cover microbeads in other personal care products, such as makeup, deodorants, lotions or sunscreens. Ann Swanson, executive director of the commission, says that “most people don’t understand what a tiny subset of microbeads [the federal law addresses]. And that microbeads only represent one percent of the microplastics out there.”
The STAC report says that federal regulations should be improved by addressing all microbeads, not just “rinse-off” personal care products. To develop effective legislation better definitions of polymers, plastics, and especially biodegradation, are needed, Swanson says, adding “We need to encourage innovation that includes truly biodegradable alternatives.”
Most of the plastic that ends up in marine and estuarine waters comes from land-based sources — from littering and poor waste management practices — and is often conveyed by stormwater. The smallest microplastics slip through waste treatment plants into the discharge, while the larger ones are removed along with other solids. But the runoff of biosolids applied to agricultural fields provides another pathway for microplastics and microbeads to enter streams.