ALBANY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- New York could become the first state in the nation to outlaw the sale of cosmetic products containing tiny plastic scrubbing beads that have been accumulating by the tens of millions in the Great Lakes.
State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman proposed the legislation to be introduced on Tuesday. He said the plastic particles can persist in the environment for centuries and accumulate toxic chemicals that could enter the food chain if marine creatures ingest them.
"One small plastic particle can suck up oil drops from cars, pesticides, insecticides, industrial chemicals like PCBs," Marcus Eriksen, research director of the anti-plastic pollution group 5 Gyres, told 1010 WINS. "All these chemicals that do not mix with water will very happily stick to a particle of plastic."
As CBS 2's Lou Young reported, the beads are very small. It would take 50 of them to cover Abraham Lincoln's head on a penny. But they are in use in over 100 products – mostly skin creams that tout exfoliating properties, but even some toothpastes.
Rubbing the cream with the beads on one's skin results in a gritty, sand-like feel. The idea is to scrape away old skin and open pores.
But you can't tell what's in the grit unless you read the label.
Many creams actually use crushed pearls or shells, but the microbeads are also very popular – and there is a reason for it.
"The manmade pieces are spherical, so they're perfectly round, and thus, are gentler on the skin," said cosmetics store owner Judy Graham.
But the problem, Eriksen said, is that the small and buoyant beads float out of sewage treatment plants into rivers. They then end up in the fish we eat – with some alarming consequences, experts said.
"The toxic chemicals that are already in the water tend combine with these plastic beads, so it becomes a toxic stew," said Paul Gallay of the New York state clean water advocacy group Riverkeeper.
The idea of a toxic stew is never good, and the Attorney General's office said it is absolutely unacceptable in New York state waterways.
"From the Great Lakes to the Hudson River to Long Island Sound, our commitment to protecting and restoring New York's waters is among our most important responsibilities," Schneiderman said in a release.
Eriksen applauded New York state for taking the lead on banning microbeads.
"It sets a precedent for the rest of the country," he said. "Microbeads, plastic in our facial scrubs, is really a bad idea and we should phase these out nationwide."
And the very threat of action already has been prompting change.
"Some of the leaders in the industry have voluntarily committed to a phase-out of these materials," said Leumel Srolovic of the Attorney General's office.
Some stores already have moved to all-natural exfoliating products. But they admitted that the microbeads have their fans.
"It's going to cause some type of problem, honestly, for some people. It will," said cosmetics sales executive Derenisse Infante. "People love to their scrubs."
Three leading cosmetic companies -- Procter and Gamble, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive -- also have made commitments to phase out use of microbeads.
Other companies, such as Burt's Bees, have never used these plastics in their products, Schneiderman said.
Consumers can determine if their beauty products contain microbeads by checking the ingredient list for "polyethylene" or "polypropylene."
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