Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Government considers ban on microbeads after water is found to be contaminated

The government has set up a task team to look at imposing a total ban on microbeads – the tiny plastic beads used in cosmetics, toothpaste and sandblasting.

This comes after a Water Research Commission study found microplastic pollution in tap water in Johannesburg and Tshwane, as well as in all rivers tested in Gauteng and in borehole water in the North West province.

The study, conducted by researchers at North-West University, recommended a ban on the manufacture, importation and use of microbeads in South Africa.

In response, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has set up a task team of officials from the departments of trade and industry, health and science and technology to examine the possibility of phasing in a microbead ban.

The task team is also in consultation with the plastics and cosmetic industries.

DEA spokesperson Albi Modise said the department had “moved quickly to engage extensively on the possibility of a complete ban of microbeads, particularly the petroleum-based microbeads”.

Microbeads already banned in several countries

One of the proposals that the team has made so far is for an amendment of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, administered by the Department of Health, which would ban microbeads in these substances.

Modise said the task team had consulted the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association to get its position on the manufacturing, import and use of microbeads in various products.

“The association has expressed the same concerns as those of DEA, and is working with the European Union and other local research institutes to look at alternatives into microbeads,” he said.

Several countries have banned, or plan to ban, the manufacture or importation of toiletries containing microbeads. Those where a ban came into effect in 2018 include Canada, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

Others, such as India, Ireland and Italy, have drafted legislation for the ban to come into effect later.

Microbeads were only some of the microplastics that the study found in rivers, boreholes and tap water. Microplastics – defined as plastic particles less than 5mm in size – have two primary sources: plastic pellets used as raw material by the plastics industry, and microbeads used in the cosmetic industry, particularly in exfoliants and toothpaste.

Concern over sandblasting

Secondary sources are the billions of bits of plastic broken off from larger plastic objects that have become degraded after being discarded.

Microbeads are added to a variety of toiletries, including shower gels, toothpastes, facial scrubs and exfoliants, to give them “scrubbing power”.

They are usually less than 2mm in size, with some so small they are not visible to the naked eye.

Professor Henk Bouwman, one of the researchers in the study, said a worrying source of microbeads was sandblasting.

“If used in sandblasting they can not only get into water but also into the air and so into people’s lungs. If they are a certain size they can stick onto the alveoli in the lungs,” he said.

Microbeads from toiletries are washed down the drain and into sewerage treatment plants, which are not designed to capture such tiny particles. These end up in rivers and the sea when treated sewage effluent is discharged.

Bottled water also contaminated

It is not known how microbeads and other microplastics got into tap water in Gauteng.

Bouwman recommended in his study that the “pathways” of microplastic pollution of freshwater be studied.

South Africa is not alone in having tap water contaminated by microplastics. A study by Orb Media this year of tap water from more than a dozen countries found microplastic contamination in 83% of the samples. The US had the highest contamination rate with 94% of tap water samples containing microplastic, and the UK, Germany and France the lowest rate at about 72%.

Another study, released this year, found that bottled water also contained microplastic particles. An analysis of 259 bottles from 11 brands in nine countries found an average of 325 plastic particles for every litre of bottled water sold. Only 17 bottles contained no microplastics.

No studies have been done on the health effects of ingested microplastics on humans.

Bouwman said one of the worries was that toxins like DDT and persistent organic pollutants attached themselves to plastic, and were absorbed into plastic.

It is not known whether these toxins move from the plastic into the body of the animal or human once it has been ingested. — News24

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

R270m ‘housing heist’ bid deprives people of decent homes

After alleged attempts to loot Eastern Cape housing funds, 39 200 people in the province will continue to live in atrocious conditions

Cabinet reshuffle not on cards yet

There are calls for the president to act against ministers said to be responsible for the state’s slow response to the unrest, but his hands are tied

More top stories

R270m ‘housing heist’ bid deprives people of decent homes

After alleged attempts to loot Eastern Cape housing funds, 39 200 people in the province will continue to live in atrocious conditions

Stolen ammo poses security threat amid failure to protect high-risk...

A Durban depot container with 1.5-million rounds of ammunition may have been targeted, as others in the vicinity were left untouched, say security sources

Sierra Leoneans want a share of mining profits, or they...

The arrival of a Chinese gold mining company in Kono, a diamond-rich district in the east of Sierra Leone, had a devastating impact on the local community, cutting its water supply and threatening farmers’ livelihoods – and their attempts to seek justice have been frustrated at every turn

IEC to ask the courts to postpone local elections

The chairperson of the Electoral Commission of South Africa said the Moseneke inquiry found that the elections would not be free and fair if held in October
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×