Microbeads look like fish eggs, only way smaller.

You’ve probably encountered them unknowingly, as tiny plastic particles of (typically) polyethylene commonly found in exfoliating personal-care products and toothpastes. In these products, as well as biomedical and health-science research, their uniformity creates a ball-bearing effect for a silky texture and spreadability.

Colored microspheres are popular in cosmetic products.

Unfortunately, what’s good for cosmetic effect is bad for the cosmos. Unintentionally, microbeads represent one of the latest assaults on our environment.

In wastewater, they slip through filters designed to remove small particulates. They pollute the waste stream and pose an environmental hazard for aquatic animals in freshwater and ocean water.  

Freshwater perch in a Swedish study, for example, chose to eat microbeads over their natural diet of zooplankton. The plastic in their systems resulted in behavior problems such as ignoring predators. Oops.

You’d think as a society, we would develop the foresight to anticipate and research side-effects before putting new products on the market.

In fact, there’s a term for that. In economics it’s called the Precautionary Principle, a conservative (in the original sense of the word) approach to risk management. The policy puts the burden of proof on the provider to show that a new action or policy is not harmful.

“The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk,” according to Wikipedia.

The legal systems of some countries already require the application of the Precautionary Principle in some instances. Since the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the principle has been integrated with many other legally binding international treaties such as the Rio Declaration and Kyoto Protocol.

The United States does not yet operate under the Precautionary Principle. Instead we suffer environmental degradation first, then play “whodunit?” afterwards.

We witness the damage, then seek the source, working backwards and often painstakingly to request, cajole, sanction, outlaw and then police the offending behavior that could have been nipped in the bud at much less expense to our national economy.

The glass half-full news is that governments and manufacturers are dealing with this before many consumers are aware of it. In the U.S., the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 phases out microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics by July 2017. It does not deal with the other uses.

In California, personal-care products manufactured after Jan. 1, 2018, will be restricted to microbeads of more than 1 part per million. Two years later, that restriction will apply to the sale of over-the-counter drugs.

To avoid contaminating our oceans in the meantime, you can choose products based on lists available on sites such as Beat the Microbead.

In some senses, being a consumer is harder for us than it was for our ancestors. They grew and bartered and cooked without having to be concerned about pesticides, poisoned fish, strip-logged forest, or child labor (except maybe their own farm-raised kids).

Most of us don’t have time to monitor every product we consume. We depend on government agencies such as the Food & Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Health and Safety Administration to protect our health and the Earth’s.

Ironically, our agencies are underfunded and sometimes defunded by political forces. More problematically, they are often “captured” by private interests: subject to the influence of the vary industries they are designed to regulate. To put people before products, we need to institutionalize the Precautionary Principle.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

Karen Telleen-Lawton is an eco-writer, sharing information and insights about economics and ecology, finances and the environment. Having recently retired from financial planning and advising, she spends more time exploring the outdoors — and reading and writing about it. The opinions expressed are her own.