Plastic pollution is a hype-word these days, the latest environmental “trend.” Pictures of animals suffering the consequences of our convenient plastic lives come to mind when we think about plastic pollution: turtles with plastic straws in their noses, seals entangled in fishing nets, or whales with kilos of plastic bags in their stomach. The almost invisible threat of microplastics is lurking in our food, drinks, and air. Microplastics are small plastic particles that can enter the environment as such or stem from bigger plastics breaking down. Big plastic items like bottles or bags fragment into smaller plastic particles over time because of environmental conditions. Other microplastics end up in the environment because they have been intentionally added to cosmetics or paint products by their manufacturers. However, the two primary sources of microplastics are tires – made of synthetic rubber, which releases plastic particles with friction – and clothes and textiles. The latest is today’s topic of interest. Why? Because microplastics, or microfibres, from clothing, are more dangerous than what we thought up until now.
Synthetic Clothes Are Polluting the Earth
Microplastics from textiles are called microfibres because of their shape. You might have never checked the label of your clothing. If you do, you will find words like “polyester,” “nylon,” “polyamide,” “acrylic.” These are examples of plastic materials very commonly used in clothing.
When these textiles are manufactured, washed with your laundry, worn, or dried, they release these tiny plastic fibres in the water and the air. These microfibres have been found in almost everything we eat and drink: fish, seafood, chicken, tap water, bottled water, salt, beer. They have deeply entered our food chain, of which we are at the top, so the risk for us is even higher.
No location on Earth is safe from these fibres either; since they end up in the air, they can travel for kilometres before settling down, scientists have proven. From the top of the world to the ocean’s deepest point, neither Mount Everest nor the Mariana Trench is free of microplastic pollution. Research has shown that big cities like London, Paris, and Dongguan are also collecting microfibres from textiles. Even in pristine areas like the Pyrenees or US national parks plastic rain is falling down. An almost invisible threat that has ultimately made its way to us.
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First Scientific Proof of Microfibres Affecting Our Lungs
Plastic microfibres are not just found in outdoor air; they can also be found inside buildings and, in particular, in the dust on the floor. Of all the floating dust in a household, 33% of it is microplastics from textiles. This is enough reason for concern, considering that these fibres might be settling on the food we eat, creating a new source of ingestion of microplastics. Research found that the ingestion of household fibres per person per year can amount to between 14.000 and 68.000 particles.
Not only that, microplastics were already found in lung tissue 30 years ago. Textile workers who process, among others, polyester and nylon fibres experienced coughing, breathlessness, and reduced lung capacity.
What makes this issue even more concerning and demands immediate action by governments and the textile industry is the latest research done by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in February 2021. Clothing fibres such as nylon and polyester have the potential to hinder the recovery and development of our lungs. Research in the United States also just showed for the first time that the smallest plastic particles in pregnant rats could get elsewhere in the body. They were found not only in the lungs and heart of the pregnant rat, but also in the liver, lungs, heart, kidneys, and brain of the fetus.
According to the researchers, this possibly happens to humans as well.
What Can You Do to Limit Your Exposure?
As consumers, we often feel hopeless when we hear about problems on such a global scale. Replacing your plastic bottle with a reusable one will not be enough this time. Make sure you ventilate and vacuum your home frequently to ensure that the plastic fibres are being collected.
When purchasing clothing or textiles for your home, choose sustainably sourced natural materials as much as possible. Try to stay away from fast fashion, as this model only encourages overconsumption of clothes, especially synthetic ones like polyester.
Or ask your favourite fashion brand to take responsibility for the clothes they put on the market. They must guarantee that their products do not put our environment, ourselves, and, most importantly, the next generations at risk.
This piece originally appeared on Plastic Soup Foundation, written by Laura Díaz Sánchez, and is republished here as part of an editorial agreement with Earth.Org.