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Tiny pieces of plastic polluting Lake Michigan, worrying researchers

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What does your next trip to the beach have to do with your face wash?

A lot, it turns out.

It's no secret that pollution and litter get into our oceans, lakes and rivers, but there's a certain kind of pollution that's just beginning to get national attention, and it's making some ecologists worried.

It's called microplastic, which is classified as any piece of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters across. Often, the pieces are too small to notice with the naked eye.

Many of the face washes, shower gels and even toothpastes that we use every day are contributing to the problem. Products that include tiny plastic beads, or "microbeads," used to exfoliate and scrub the skin or gums, play a huge role in the microplastic issue.

"The more people look for the plastic, the more they find it," says Dr. Tim Hoellein, an ecology professor who first studied the issue as a graduate student at Notre Dame. Hoellein now teaches at Loyola University, and is researching plastic pollution in area rivers.

Hoellein says microplastic pollution is a relatively new discovery, but it's widespread.

"They come from anything that's flushed down the toilet or flushed down the drains that makes its way to the waste-water treatment plant and then doesn't get filtered," Hoellein explains, "and ends up in freshwater ecosystems."

Products that have polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon listed as an ingredient have these ecosystem-damaging plastic microbeads. When you use them to wash your face or body, they go down the drain and straight into our freshwater sources.

That's where the beads soak up chemicals and toxins in the water, Hoellein says. And then fish, birds and turtles eat that plastic, confusing it for food.

"Those chemicals can actually come off the plastic and be absorbed by the animal," Hoellein says. "These are the types of chemicals that tend to stay in tissues."

And there's a concern for human health, too, considering people eat many of the fish found to have eaten microplastic. Experts don't know for sure if there are long-term effects of ingesting the microbeads, but the material is unnatural.

The recent attention is prompting states like Illinois to ban the use of microbeads completely. Their bill passed both the House and Senate just last week.

Michigan proposed a similar bill last summer.

Several global companies are not waiting for those laws to be enacted, and have already decided to phase out the use of microbeads in their products over the next few years.

Unilever, which makes Dove, Axe and St. Ives products states on its website, "We expect to complete this phase-out globally by January 1, 2015 and are currently exploring which alternatives can best match the sensory experience that the plastic scrub beads provide."

Johnson & Johnson, supplier of Clean & Clear products -- a brand with many plastic-containing face washes -- made this statement: "Our goal is to complete the first phase of reformulations by the end of 2015, which represents about half our products sold that contain microbeads. The timeline for the remaining products will be determined once our informed substitution assessments are complete."

L'Oreal posted this on its website: "L'Oreal is strongly committed to improve its environmental impact and has decided to no longer use microbeads of polyethylene in its scrubs by 2017."

For a list of products containing microbeads, compiled by the global campaign "Beat the Microbead," click here.

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