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How damaging is breathing in microplastics?

Amsterdam, 23 March 2018 – Around 16% of the plastic produced annually in the world consists of textile fibers. In recent decades, production has grown by 6% every year and is now around 60 million tons per year. Synthetic clothing is responsible for endless amounts of microfibers which can even be found in drinking water. And what’s worse, hardly any research has been carried out into the presence of tiny plastic particles in the air.

An earlier French study showed that plastic microfibers are not just in outdoor air, they are also present inside buildings and in particular in dust on the floor. An analysis of fibers in the air shows that 29% is plastic. Research has already shown that people breathe in microfibers. Indoors it is babies that crawl on the floor, who breathe in the most fibers.

Does breathing these fibers in damage health? In a recently published article in ScienceDirect, the French researchers, this time together with their British counterparts, expressed their extreme concern and called for urgent more in-depth interdisciplinary research. In their article entitled “Microplastics in air: Are we breathing it in?” they discuss where particles are coming from and what the health risks are. Most of the particles people breathe in find their way out again.

However there are fears that some of the particles penetrate deep into the lungs and remain there permanently, simply because plastic does not break down. It is possible that the body reacts to these particles, for example through infections, especially in people who are less fit.

The findings in the article conclude:

  • the concentration of plastic fibers in the air indoors is substantially higher than in the air outdoors, indoor fibers are also longer;
  • plastic particles are found in lung tissue. This indicates that the body is not able to rid itself of all particles;
  • when particles remain in the lungs, they remain there for a long time because they are bio-persistent;
  • all kinds of fibers appear to cause infections when the concentration reaches a certain level or after prolonged inhalation. It also matters how long the fibers are because longer fibers appear to be more damaging;
  • workers who handle plastic textile fibers are known to suffer from many types of lung disease, from coughing to limited lung capacity;
  • a significant shortcoming in the research is the measurement method. The researchers were only able to study fibers of 50 μm, but it is vital that particles under 10 μm in size are studied.

Also read: California legislation will require polyester clothing to have a microfiber pollution label