Scientists have already found the particles, known as microplastic, floating in the oceans but recently reported the same contamination in the largest surface freshwater system on the Earth. The particles are often less than a millimeter (0.04 inch).
A team of researchers with 5 Gyres Institute, a non-profit California-based environmental activist group, collected samples from lakes Erie, Superior and Huron last summer and found large quantities of round, plastic pellets.
"They matched the same size, color, texture and shape of the microbeads found in popular consumer products," said the group's executive director, Marcus Eriksen. He said the group plans to publish the research in a peer-reviewed journal later this year.
Microbeads are tiny plastic balls used in products like facial scrubs, body washes and toothpastes. They scrub away dead skin, similar to using a sponge, and are designed to wash down the drain.
Scientists captured the tiny samples using "manta trawl," a net system resembling a manta ray, which is towed behind the boat.
The organization presented their research to Proctor & Gamble Co and Johnson & Johnson, expecting a battle for urging them to stop using microbeads in their products.
A Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman said they have already begun the phase out of polyethylene microbeads in their existing products and are currently developing an environmentally friendly alternative for future products.
"We won without having to go through a legislative battle, which no one wants to do," Eriksen said.
Proctor & Gamble did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters. Eriksen said a company spokesperson told 5 Gyres they will phase out microbeads in products by 2017.
The pollution damage will continue in the meantime. The plastic particles are now added to an already long list of threats to the fish population, Eriksen said.
Microplastic is easily confused with natural food found in lakes. The beads can remain in fish and be ingested by humans, the group said.
"We don't know if the problem stops with the fish or if we eat the fish, the problems are with us now," said Lorena Rios-Mendoza, a chemist with the University of Wisconsin-Superior who was on the 5 Gyres boat expedition.
There is no practical way to remove the plastic debris already floating in the lakes, Eriksen said. Particles will float to shore, drift out to the ocean or absorb chemicals from the water, which weigh the particles down and cause them to sink to the bottom of the lakes.
The lifespan of microplastics is unknown so it can take years for it to completely leave the ocean or lake, if it ever does.
"Plastic doesn't biodegrade so once it's in the water, it doesn't just disappear," Rios-Mendoza said.
The scientists are expanding their search this summer to lakes Michigan and Ontario. (Reporting by Lisa Maria Garza in Dallas; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Lisa Shumaker)
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