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Microbead Researcher Among 6 Recipients Of Heinz Awards

Wilfredo Lee
In this photo, a researcher checks for microscopic bits of plastic in a sample of water.

A scientist who warned about the environmental threat of microbeads is one of six people being honored with $250,000 cash awards from the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Family Foundation.

The annual Heinz Awards recognize achievement in the arts, public policy, the economy and other areas. The recipients of the 23rd annual awards were announced Tuesday.

Among them are State University of New York Fredonia researcher Sherri Mason, who found that billions of tiny microbeads, the tiny bits of plastic found in some exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs, were being released into the nation's waterways each day. The foundation said her work spurred state and federal microbead bans.

Mason found that the greatest freshwater concentration of microplastics is in the Great Lakes, but that that also exist all over the world.

“Really kind of every environmental compartment in the world that we’ve looked in, and we’ve gone to remote lakes in the middle of Mongolia and we still find microplastics,” she said. “They’re just everywhere.”

Mason said the particles are ingested by aquatic life and make their way into the food chain; they’re also present in tap and bottled water.

Microplastics contain known carcinogens, neurotoxins and endocrine disrupters, which impede the body’s normal hormonal processes and have been linked to ovarian and breast cancer in women and decreasing fertility in men.

While Mason applauds the policy changes that have resulted in her work, she said there is much more to be done. She advocates for plastics to be listed as pollutants and for increased corporate responsibility.

“If industry is going to manufacture particular goods, they need to be responsible for making sure that those goods get disposed of properly,” Mason said.

Other winners are environmental psychologist Ming Kuo who researches how urban green space influences mental health; marine biologist Enric Sala who works to protect marine environments; education expert Norman Atkins whose educational model is credited with improving classrooms nationwide; multidisciplinary artist Ralph Lemon whose work addresses themes of race, justice and identity, and business consultant Linda Rottenberg who is working to improve opportunities for entrepreneurs in emerging countries and in the U.S.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.