3 March 2021
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.
But have you heard of microplastics? The almost invisible threat that 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 microfibers, from clothing, are more dangerous than what we thought up until now.
Synthetic clothes are
polluting the Earth
Microplastics from textiles are called microfibers 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 fibers in the water and the air. These microfibers 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 fibers either; since they end up in the air, they can travel for kilometers 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 microfibers 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.
First scientific proof of microfibers affecting our lungs
Plastic microfibers 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 fibers might be settling on the food we eat, creating a new source of ingestion of microplastics. Research found that the ingestion of household fibers 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 fibers 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
by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in February 2021. Clothing fibers 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 fibers 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 favorite 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.
By Laura Díaz Sánchez
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