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New Research in the Netherlands: synthetic clothing fibers inhibit the production of lung cells
Nylon and polyester hinder the growth and recovery of our airways, scientists from the University of Groningen (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen), TNO, and Plymouth Marine Laboratory conclude in new research into the effects of microplastics and microfibers on our health.
The researchers found that synthetic fibers in textiles make it more difficult for the lungs to recover. They warn that this will particularly affect people with COVID-19 and children, whose lungs are still developing.
Professor Barbro Melgert, the principal researcher in
this study, remarks that “a virus damages lung tissue, and if you have to
recover from that while your lungs are filled with fibers that impede this
recovery, then you have another problem on top of COVID-19”.
The findings of this research project will first be brought out on Wednesday, February 24th, in the second episode of the Plastic Health Channel (YouTube), by the environmental organization the Plastic Soup Foundation, and presented by Daphne Bunskoek.
To get a good look at what is happening in the lungs,
Melgert and her fellow researchers used so-called “mini-lungs”. These
airways and alveoli are mini-organs grown using stem cells. To determine the
impact of nylon and polyester microfibers on lung tissue, the mini-lungs were
exposed to fibers small enough to be inhaled for 14 days.
The researchers focused specifically on polyester and
nylon because they are most commonly found in indoor spaces, where people spend
most of their time. These new findings build on previous research conducted by
Dr. Fransien van Dijk and colleagues on the impact of microplastics on lungs,
which was presented at the 2019 Plastic Health Summit.
Through the lungs to the heart and fetus
Dr. Phoebe Stapleton from Rutgers University in the US state of New Jersey wondered what exactly happens to plastic after inhalation. Together with her fellow researchers, she had pregnant rats inhale nanoplastics and then determined the amount of plastic in the tissue of both the mother and the fetus.
The conclusion was that nanoplastics, after being
inhaled by pregnant rats, ultimately made their way into the fetuses. The
plastic was 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.
Stapleton warns that the same may be true for human
inhalation. According to the scientist, researchers need to “first get a
better picture on total human exposure. We also need to identify the chemicals
in these nanoplastics”.
Stapleton’s research will also be presented during the
Plastic Health Channel Broadcast on February 24th.
Microfibers and the role of fast fashion
“Fast fashion” plays a big role in plastic
microfiber pollution. For this reason, the Plastic Soup Foundation has been
calling attention to the fashion industry’s contribution to this form of
pollution for years with its Ocean Clean Wash Campaign.
The Campaign Collaborates with the Italian research
institute IPCB of the Italian National Research Council CNR and investigates
exactly how much fiber is released from the clothing produced by our global
fashion players — Adidas, Zara, Nike, and H&M. Read more about the study
Laura Díaz Sánchez, the campaign director for Ocean
Clean Wash, warns in the same YouTube broadcast that clothing loses microfibers
when both worn and washed. Díaz Sánchez remarks that “more than half of
the clothes we wear are made of synthetic materials such as polyester. The
problem with these types of materials is that their fibers are short and
pointed, so they detach more easily and then float through the air in our homes
and become part of household dust”.
A benchmark for the industry
Ocean Clean Wash has developed a benchmark and label together with the Italian research institute CNR (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche), independently of the fashion industry. This new standard enables brands, organizations and consumers to see how much or how little microfibers certain garments release.
Each participating fashion brand is assessed against
this benchmark and is then allowed to attach a red, orange or green label to
its clothing. The label, funded by the Dutch Postcode Lottery (Nationale
Postcode Loterij), will enable consumers to make informed decisions about
the clothes they buy based on their environmental impact.
Díaz Sánchez calls this benchmark “a great opportunity for the fashion industry to be part of the solution and not just the problem”.
Inditex and Adidas were invited to give an official response to our Youtube episode. You can read it here.
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