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Congress OKs bill banning plastic microbeads in skin care products

WASHINGTON -- Plastic microbeads used in soaps, body washes and other personal-care products will be phased out starting in 2017 under legislation approved by Congress and sent to the president.

The Senate approved the bill Friday following House approval last week. Lawmakers said the bill was needed to protect fish and wildlife that are ingesting the tiny beads after they are rinsed down the drain and discharged into lakes and rivers.

Microbeads are tiny plastic particles used as an abrasive in many personal-care and beauty products, such as facial scrubs, soaps and toothpastes. They do not dissolve and can persist in the environment for decades.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, called microbeads devastating to wildlife and human health. Once signed into law, the legislation phasing out microbeads should protect Lake Erie and other waterways now being polluted, Portman said.

"The Great Lakes have survived many a foe - severe pollution, oil spills, discharge from refineries, zebra mussels and attempts to steal our water, just to name a few," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. "We are going to fight any activity that puts our beloved Great Lakes in jeopardy."

Marcus Eriksen, a science educator and research director of the environmental group 5 Gyres, raised concerns that the microbeads can soak up pesticides and chemicals after they are washed down the drain.

"By the time the plastic gets downstream towards the ocean, they become these toxic pills," he told CBS News last year. Eriksen believes many water treatment plants cannot filter out the tiny plastics, allowing them to flow into the ocean or waterways where fish could mistake them for food.

"Big fish eat little fish, eventually the fish is on your dinner plate," Eriksen said. "And you're eating that fish, along with all the toxins it consumed along the way."

The federal legislation would prohibit the manufacture of products containing plastic microbeads as of July 1, 2017, and phase out sales of the product over the next two years. The federal law would take precedence over state laws that are starting to phase out microbeads over similar concerns.

"We know our country's waterways do not always respect state boundaries," said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J. "The strong federal standard we have developed is more protective and implementation will occur sooner" than in any current state law.