Suffolk Votes to Wash Free of Microbeads

The Suffolk County Legislature today unanimously approved a local law prohibiting the sale of personal care products containing microbeads; the small plastic exfoliating particle additives linked to aquatic die offs.

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Riverhead, NY - October 6, 2015 - The Suffolk County Legislature today unanimously approved a local law prohibiting the sale of personal care products containing microbeads; the small plastic exfoliating particle additives linked to aquatic die offs.  The initiative sponsored by Legislator Kara Hahn institutes a local phase-out beginning January 2018 for personal care products not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and January 2019 for ones that are.  While not the first municipality to adopt a ban, this vote is significant as Suffolk is the nation’s largest suburban county, and biggest municipality in the State of New York to approve such legislation.   Lawmakers are hopeful that today’s vote will spur action on wider encompassing bans pending at the state and federal levels.     

“The threat posed by microbead waste is of national consequence.  The cumbersome task of tackling this issue municipality to municipality and state to state, will never prove as effective as a comprehensive policy,” said Legislator Hahn.  “We are in need of a solution that will provide for a continuum in microbead policy, but should efforts fail in Albany and Washington, today’s vote puts Suffolk County on the right side of history and nature on this issue.”

United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said, “As we continue to push for a federal microbead ban, counties across New York are stepping up and taking the lead to keep these harmful plastics out of our waterways.  I applaud County Legislator Hahn and others who are taking this issue on at the local level, and I will continue to fight for a federal law that bans plastic microbeads from personal care products nationwide.”

At less than 5 millimeters in diameter, and typically smaller than 1 millimeter in diameter, microbeads are not filtered out by most wastewater treatment systems, leading to their eventual discharge into the surface waters.  Researchers contend that once released the beads soak up pesticides and chemicals while flowing from their source.  Due to their tiny size, after discharge, the now toxin laden particles are mistaken for food by small fish and other aquatic species, who consume and absorb the contaminants.  Once in the system, these pollutants are recycled from smaller organisms to larger ones and eventually into the human food supply through consumption of contaminated organisms. 

“Microbeads are a threat to our environment, our wildlife, and our public health,” said New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. “It is estimated that up to 19 tons of plastic microbeads wash down drains each year. Strong, comprehensive regulation is the only way to stop this situation from getting worse. I congratulate the Suffolk County Legislature and Legislator Kara Hahn for their leadership in getting this local bill passed – and I call on our state legislators and the federal government to pass my bipartisan bill in Albany and Sen. Gillibrand’s bipartisan bill in Washington, both of which will get us to a cleaner and healthier New York.”

In 2014, Attorney General Schneiderman issued a report that estimated over 19 tons of the offending beads are released into New York’s wastewater stream annually with very little of that being removed before discharge.

Earlier this year, Suffolk’s Departments of Health Services and Economic Development and Planning issued a report requested by Legislator Hahn to examine the health and economic impacts of a county-wide microbeads ban.  The analysis found that, “there are WWTPs [waste water treatment plants] located in Suffolk County that could potentially be discharging microbeads to surface waters.”

“These tiny microbeads are adding up to big contamination problems in our ocean, estuaries and bays.  A recent study found microbeads in Long Island Sound and the more scientists look the more they are finding them.  Microbeads have become an insidious and widespread pollutant but the good news is we can stop this pollution source.  Banning microbeads ensures that manufacturers will switch to more natural alternatives in their products, and educating the public means we can switch the products we all use at home.   These simple changes will have a significant impact on the protection of our health and our environment,” said Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.  “Congratulations to Legislator Kara Hahn who is showing the leadership we need to make a meaningful change in protecting our waterways and our health.”

Last June, Illinois became the first state to outright ban the sale of cosmetics containing plastic microbeads by 2019.  Under that law, legislators in the “Prairie State” gave producers until 2017 before banning the manufacture of products containing these beads and until 2019 before prohibiting the sale of products to consumers.  The timeline should allow manufacturers time to develop and bring to market natural alternatives.

According to Jane Fasullo, Sierra Club Long Island’s Group Chair, “While the saying ‘What you can’t see can’t hurt you’ has some validity in some cases, it is meaningless in the case of microbeads which can’t be seen but do far reaching damage to the environment, especially to our aquifers and surface waters. Banning them from distribution and sale is the only way to prevent them from infiltrating our waters. I thank legislator Kara Hahn for moving this legislation, and all those who supported it.” 

The bill now goes to County Executive Steve Bellone for his signature within the next 30 days.