The age-old Indian obsession with fair skin is having its dark impact on the environment. Liquid soaps and shower gels laced with microbeads, or plastic beads smaller than 0.2 mm that help peel off dead skin are finding their way into water bodies adding to the toxic, plastic broth.
In May 2017, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) issued a notification and added ‘non-biodegradable polymeric microbeads’ to the ‘List of raw materials generally not recognised as safe for use in cosmetics’. Earlier, it had a clause for household detergents: “The material shall not contain any microbeads or other synthetic abrasive material.”
While the law exists on paper, soap, creams and gels containing these microbeads are available off the shelf and online.
“We discovered lakhs of particles per km in the water samples that we collected in Vembanad lake where six rivers empty. In 2017, we found 500 microplastics per sq meter in the sediment samples. This year, when we collected samples and analysed the water, the concentration of primary microplastics was way higher,” said E.V. Ramasamy of Mahatma Gandhi University, who has published a paper on microplastic pollution in the sediment of Vembanad lake in Kerala. Interestingly, it is the only known study of microplastic waste in India and the researchers used a ‘neuston net’ to trap and analyse the plastic debris.
At the inlet of the Hamid Khan Kunta in Hyderabad, four workers toil round the clock to make the nala water flow into the 800 mm pipeline. They create a wall of waste to block the channel and force the water into the pipeline through a metal grill. Then they scoop out plastic waste which they collect for processing. Only larger pieces of plastic waste get trapped, the rest escapes into the Hussainsagar.
“We don’t have a way of filtering these particles out of water. Other countries are also trying to find techniques to remove these microparticles from sewage, but without success. These microparticles are dangerous as they are ingested by small creatures that can find their way into the food chain and lead to endocrine disruption and affect reproductive health,” says Dr. N Manickam, Sr. Principal Scientist, Environmental Toxicology, Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow.
“We were surprised by the presence of primary microplastics which are more dangerous than secondary microplastics which is the debris of plastic waste. Primary microplastics are dangerous due to their high adhesion as they are treated with chemicals. They accumulate water-borne contaminants like heavy metals and persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic compounds. This can get into the food chain. The microparticles range from 23,800 to 2,44,000 particles per sq km with a mean abundance of 60,650 particles per sq km,” informed Mr. Ramasamy.