Glitter Has Become a Global Hazard

glitter global hazard

Story at-a-glance -

  • Microplastic pollution is a critical issue that affects waterways and wildlife; it bioaccumulates easily and may ultimately end up on your dinner table
  • Discarded bottles, bags and straws break apart in the ocean to form microsized pieces measuring 5 millimeters or less; glitter is a preformed microplastic particle that washes down the drain and into the environment
  • Microsized particles of plastic are consumed by even the smallest forms of life in the ocean, affecting the function and health of wildlife
  • British scientists have developed a biodegradable form of glitter, also available in the U.S., made from eucalyptus and aluminum

By Dr. Mercola

Microplastic pollution is a critical issue affecting waterways and wildlife. Glitter is a form of microplastic that may harm marine life. A chain of 19 child care nurseries across southern England recently announced they were banning the use of glitter in their children's craft projects in an effort to reduce pollution.1

Discarded bottles, bags and straws break down in the ocean waters to microplastic pieces, 5 millimeters (mm) or smaller. These pieces are literally clouding the ocean waters with "plastic smog."2 Billions of pounds of plastic can also be found in convergences that now cover approximately 40 percent of the world's ocean surface.3

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located just a few hundred miles north of Hawaii, is one of the most polluted gyres. The United Nations (U.N.) states that there are 51 trillion pieces of microplastic particles polluting the ocean.4 The U.N. describes this as 500 times more than there are stars in our galaxy. These are the pieces that currently exist in the ocean waters and not those making their way through fresh water lakes, waterways and sewer systems.

Glitter has been used for celebrations, decorations and even for revenge, as an Australian startup company promises to ship a glitter bomb to your enemy.5 The company uses glitter as it is so insidious you’ll be vacuuming it out of the carpet and picking it out of your clothes for months once it has been released. The idea was so popular they were overwhelmed with orders within 24 hours of opening for business.

Pieces of plastic have now reached the previously pristine waters of the Arctic Ocean, where damage to marine life and ocean waters continue to spread. Growing concern over the plight of the environment and human health has led some scientists to call for a ban on glitter.6

Glitter Is Not Just Annoying

CNN calls glitter "the ultimate supervillain of the craft and makeup world."7 It often takes weeks to completely remove it from your home after a craft project. It easily adheres to skin, clothing and under your nails. In other words, once your project is complete, glitter becomes completely annoying. Forensic scientists have used it as trace evidence in court cases, including the trial of an Alaskan man convicted of murdering a 15-year-old girl when glitter on her body was linked to the same glitter found in his home and car.8

Glitter as we know it today wasn't invented until 1934 when machinist Henry Rushman accidently ground up a load of scrap metal and plastics together.9 Rushman filed for four patents on inventions for cutting foil or film, and the company he opened, Meadowbrook Inventions, continues to manufacture glitter today. The company slogan is, “Our glitter covers the world.”10 Indeed, it does.

Although the craft and cosmetic industries are where most glitter is now used, the U.S. Air Force briefly used it to cloud enemy radar by blowing it out the back of their jets, and the U.K. released strips of aluminum coated paper from fighter planes with the same intent. Although not immediately dangerous if ingested in minute amounts, every year near the holiday season ophthalmologists warn11 small glitter pieces can easily get into your eye and scratch your cornea,12 increasing your risk for an eye infection or permanent vision loss.13

Beyond the annoyance of finding it on your skin, in your hair, on your clothes and throughout your home, once washed down the drain, glitter becomes a problem for wastewater treatment plants and waterways. Environmental scientists believe taking the step to ban glitter is an important way of reducing the amount of microplastic particles that make their way into the oceans and fresh water, damaging aquatic life.14

Environmental Scientists Want Glitter Banned

Trisia Farrelly, Ph.D., environmental anthropologist at Massey University in New Zealand, was the first to call for a ban on glitter15 in an interview with CBS.16 Glitter today is manufactured from polymer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that goes under the trade name Mylar. Sheets of PET are cut into tiny pieces and shapes, most measuring less than 5 mm.

These bits of microplastic particles are consumed by marine life, and collect in bird's stomachs, causing the birds to die of starvation.17 While the majority of microplastic particles that have been measured are believed to have degraded from larger pieces of plastic, glitter enters the environment already small enough for smaller marine animals to ingest.

Tons of Microplastic Contribute to Water and Food Pollution

Some journalists believe banning glitter is a pointless effort in a war against millions of tons of garbage and plastic that enter the waterways and oceans each year.18 The argument is that the amount of glitter disposed of in the environment is nowhere near the damage created by the degradation of plastic bags and plastic bottles. However, as with all complex and multifaceted problems, it will likely require more than one strategy to effect change.

In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), amended the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to include the Microbead-Free Waters Act19 prohibiting the manufacturing, packaging and distribution of cosmetic products that contain rinse-off microbeads.20 The deadline to stop introduction or delivery in interstate commerce of microbead cosmetics is July 1, 2018. The deadline for drugs is July 1, 2019.

While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has not paid special attention to the dissemination of glitter in the ocean waters, Amy V. Uhrin, chief scientist of NOAA's marine debris division commented that although they have not specifically addressed glitter,21 "Because it is a microplastic, we would have the same concerns as we would with any other microplastic that ends up in the environment."

Glitter offers a unique challenge to fish as they are attracted to shiny objects. In fact, a significant number of patents have been filed for fishing lures that include the use of glitter to attract fish.22 It turns out even the smallest creatures are attracted by all that glitters in the ocean. A study published in Environmental Science and Technology reported finding microplastics ingested by a range of zooplankton, some of the smallest creatures in the ocean that play a vital ecological role in the marine food chain.23

The findings of this study suggest that ingestion of microplastics may have a detrimental effect on the function and health of a creature vital to the survival of marine animals that feed on zooplankton. This has severe implications throughout the food chain, as microplastic particles are not metabolized and thus accumulate in predators, and ultimately in the final predator, humans.

Our Addiction to Plastic Is Poisoning the Planet and Your Body

The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869, but it wasn't until 1907 that the first fully synthetic plastic was produced.24 During World War II the industry grew, and production surged even further after the war. Essentially, plastic has provided the world with short-term products that survive for centuries after their use has expired.

Where once products were sold in recyclable, reusable or degradable containers, the world has gravitated toward a throwaway mindset with plastic driving the movement. Plastic chemicals are finding their way into water and food supplies, and ultimately into your body. They accumulate over time as they are not metabolized. The potential for catastrophic biological consequences for the human race grows with each discarded bottle, bag or other plastic item.

Chemicals used to make plastics more pliable, like BPA, disrupt embryonic development and are linked to the development of heart disease and cancer. Phthalates dysregulate gene expression and cause genital anomalies, especially in boys. These anomalies may be passed down for several generations.

Unfortunately, these plastic chemicals are found not only in the environment, but also in the water supply of 83 percent of samples tested worldwide. In the U.S. the results were even more alarming, as 94 percent of all tap water samples were found to contain plastic chemicals.25 Once in the water, plastics like glitter easily absorb endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as PCBs. It is even possible for those plastic particles to end up in other areas of your body, other than your gut. Orb reported:26

“If plastic fibers are in your water, experts say they’re surely in your food as well — baby formula, pasta, soups and sauces, whether from the kitchen or the grocery. Plastic fibers may leaven your pizza crust, and a forthcoming study says it’s likely in the craft beer you’ll drink to chase the pepperoni down. It gets worse.

Plastic is all but indestructible, meaning plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade; rather, it only breaks down into smaller pieces of itself, even down to particles in nanometer scale — one-one thousandth of one-one thousandth of a millimeter. Studies show particles of that size can migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to the lymph nodes and other bodily organs.”

The staggering amount of plastic that enters the environment likely doesn't overtly affect your day-to-day life. It may however have an impact on your health without your knowledge. A study published in Environmental Science and Technology found salt sold and consumed in China contained microplastic particles from disposable bottles, as well as polyethylene, cellophane and a number of other types of plastics.

The highest levels of plastics were found in salt harvested from seawater.27 In other words, as you purchase sea salt to be healthy, you may be polluting your body with plastic that has absorbed toxic chemicals from the ocean.

You May Not Have to Give Up Glitter

Scientists believe the shine and shimmer from glitter appeals to adults and children stemming from an instinct to find water sources vital for survival.28 Glitter appears on the fashion runway and has made a way into a children's trend of making glitter slime at home. Considering the damage these tiny pieces of plastic are doing to environment, safer options are sorely needed.  

Voting with your pocketbook is one of the most powerful ways you have of protecting your health and the waterways. It may seem as if the purchases you make do not have an impact, but when combined with others doing the same thing, it can be a powerful way of communicating to manufacturers that you aren't satisfied with their product.

British scientist Stephen Cotton has developed glitter from the eucalyptus plant and aluminum.29 The drive to create the product stemmed from the coming ban on microbeads in the U.K. According to Cotton, his product is biodegradable and softer to the touch, but it won't melt off your face before you're finished wearing your makeup.30

However, even this alternative may not be wholly ideal, as aluminum also has adverse environmental consequences.31 In high amounts, aluminum is toxic to aquatic, gill-breathing animals. It’s also been shown to bioaccumulate in freshwater invertebrates.

A safer alternative might be BioGlitz,32 which sells cosmetic glitter advertised as biodegradable, compostable and made from renewably sourced, non-GMO plant ingredients. Although traditional glitter may pose a threat to marine wildlife and human health, it appears using a little ingenuity and motivation, an alternative product has been developed to meet your cosmetic needs.

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