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An online notice published Wednesday says the tiny plastic beads commonly found in facial and body scrubs is now listed as a toxic substance under the Environmental Protection Act, which gives the government the option to control their use or institute an outright ban.Getty Images/iStockphoto

The federal government has moved one step closer to banning microbeads, those tiny plastic spheres found in personal care products that have come increasingly under fire for their detrimental impact on the environment. Here's what you need to know:

What happened?

On Wednesday, the government published a notice that it is adding plastic microbeads five millimetres or less in size to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act's Schedule 1 list of toxic substances.

This is an important step because declaring a substance to be toxic to humans, the environment allows the government to propose new "risk management instruments" for microbeads. In other words, the government can now move forward with a ban on the use of microbeads.

This news isn't entirely a surprise. Last year, the House of Commons voted unanimously to declare microbeads toxic because of the harm they bring to the environment. In February, the government published proposed regulations to ban microbeads two millimetres or smaller in size.

Maggie MacDonald, toxics program manager with advocacy group Environmental Defence said she's pleased the new notice will ban microbeads up to five millimetres in size, as that is the only way to ensure they will all be removed from the market.

The U.S. has already adopted a new law to ban microbeads five millimetres or less and it comes into effect on Jan. 1, 2017.

Why pick on microbeads?

You've probably seen tiny colourful plastic beads in face soap, body wash, toothpaste and even hair dye, make-up and nail polish, along with plenty of other personal care products. They are designed to act as exfoliants or to act as fillers in cosmetic products. According to Environment Canada, microbeads have also been used in cleaning products, printing toners, textile printing, oil and gas exploration and other industrial uses and medical applications.

The problem is that microbeads get washed down the drain and are extremely difficult to remove from wastewater, even after multiple treatments and then are able to entre rivers, lakes and oceans. Studies have found microbeads accumulating in alarming numbers in many waterways where they can absorb persistent organic polutants (POPs) like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). From there, fish, birds, seals and other forms of marine life can consume these potentially toxic microbeads. After that, microbeads can enter the human food chain, according to the federal government.

Research has found mounting levels of plastic microbeads in waterways such as the Great Lakes. One study found there were 1.1 million microbeads per square kilometre in Lake Ontario, for instance.

What's next?

Now that microbeads have been declared toxic, the government can publish regulations that will officially ban their use. Some members of the industry have already started phasing out the use of microbeads as the public backlash grows. It's unclear when those regulations will be published, but advocates like Ms. MacDonald hope action is taken sooner rather than later.