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Microfibers kill freshwater water fleas

Microfibers from polyester clothing are ingested by freshwater water fleas. Research carried out by the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, has shown that the fleas died prematurely as a result.

PET-bottles are being used as a raw material for polyester clothing. When this clothing is machine washed hundreds of thousands to millions of fibers are emitted with every wash. It’s already known that microfibers from textiles can be found in the environment. Past research has shown that fibers enter organisms such as mussels and crabs.

Slovenian scientists studied in how far polyethylene terephthalate (PET) microfibers are ingested by freshwater water fleas (Daphnia magna), a zooplankton commonly found everywhere, and what effect this has. The flea does not select its food so it does not distinguish between plastic and natural food (algae).

The fleas which were exposed to microfibers for 48 hours in the laboratory showed a higher mortality rate, especially when they had not been fed with algae beforehand. There was no relationship with the quantity of fibers in their bodies. The length of the fibers swallowed varied between 62 and 1400 µm.

After the fleas which survived were put back in clean water for 24 hours, they did not appear to recover. The concentration of fibers was higher than the concentrations reported in the environment. However, the researchers believe that the concentrations could be comparable to places where treated sewage water is discharged into surface water, as these are hotspots with relatively high quantities of microfibers.

The results of this research were published last December in the journal Environmental Pollution. Click here for an earlier presentation of this study.

Illustration: Biotechnical Faculty, University of Ljubljana.