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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

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Warning label plastic clothing desperately needed

Amsterdam, March 19, 2018 – Microfibers that are released during the machine-washing of synthetic clothing are one of the most important and difficult-to-combat sources of the plastic soup. Millions of fibers are released per wash, fibers so small they are impossible to remove from wastewater. A bill has recently been submitted in California which proposes to provide all synthetic clothing with a warning label. Clothing that is at least 50% synthetic must be labeled with the text “This garment sheds plastic microfibers when washed”. If the bill is passed, it will take effect on January 1st, 2020.

In Europe, an industrial consortium of textile companies is considering how to prevent the spread of microfibers derived from synthetic clothing. Before the end of 2018, the partnership, according to a statement issued in January, will present possible solutions to the European Commission. This plan, however, is so vague that it raises the question whether the consortium is, in fact, strategically delaying measures for as long as possible.

The bill in California can be understood as a litmus test. If the European partnership has been created to work seriously, then there should be nothing in the way of publicly declaring that such a label should also be obligatory in Europe. If, on the other hand, the consortium has been set up to postpone all effective measures for as long as possible (under the guise that excessive research must be conducted first, for example), the industry will not commit to such a label. 

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: “The European Commission should not wait for the proposals that the European textile Industry will present at the end of 2018. Instead, it should make a warning label obligatory, just like in California. In this way, consumers are at least informed — that is an important first step in the fight against this environmental disaster.”

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

Amsterdam, March 9th – New legislation in California would require clothing items containing more than 50% of polyester to carry a label warning that the garment releases plastic microfibers when machine washed. The label would, in that case, recommend consumers to hand wash the clothing item.  

The bill was introduced in February 2018 and, if it passes, it would be prohibited to sell clothing without this label as of January 1, 2020. Hats and shoes would be exempt of this requirement.  

The goal of this new law is to recognize the threat that microfibers pose in the environment, provide with accurate information to the public and, ultimately, reduce the amount of microfibers that enter the environment.  

Microfiber pollution: an omnipresent peril 

This proposal arises as a reaction to the ever-increasing microfiber pollution of the oceans. According to the bill, synthetic clothes can shed up to 1,900 microfibers per wash and warns about the dangers of these tiny fibers when entering the ocean and eaten by sea life, as they would eventually go up the food chain. However, research from Mermaids Life+ shows that previous studies have greatly underestimated that number: an average of 9,000,000 fibers are released in every 5-kilo wash. The three-year research funded by the EU published its results in the magazine Environmental Pollution. 

A recent report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all primary microplastics in the oceans originate from machine-washed synthetic textiles, making this the largest source of microplastics, with car tire wear in second place at 28%. 

The ubiquity of microfibers in the environment pose a serious threat to wildlife as well as humans. Microfibers are so pervasive that they have been found in the most remote places in the world. A blue microfiber was found in the heart of the Himalayas, where no human had ever been before, and an amount of 25.5 billion synthetic fibers enter the water per decade in the area of the Antarctic Sea.  

A research in 2016 showed that a quarter of the fish bought at local fish markets had plastic in their digestive tracts, 80% of it being microfibers. Fibers are also contaminating the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Realistic and drastic measures need to be taken to stop this dramatic situation. California’s legislation sets a good example on the role that the governments can play to solve it.  

California: environmental pioneer 

California has traditionally been a worldwide frontrunner in taking environmental measures. They were the first state in the US to ban plastic microbeads before President Obama signed the Microbeads-Free Waters Act in 2015 and single-use plastic bags were banned in 2016. A bill proposed earlier this year, would make it illegal for restaurants to offer plastic straws to customers unless requested.  

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European textile industry’s microfiber initiative puts off taking action

Amsterdam, 2 February 2018 – Plastic microfibers are released during the machine washing of synthetic clothing. Microfibers in the environment are difficult to tackle and form a huge problem. In its Plastic Strategy the European Commission expresses its support for a new initiative by a European industrial consortium, which aims to prevent plastic microfibers entering water. On 16 January, the very day that the EC presented its Plastic Strategy, the consortium released this declaration.

The aim of the industry’s initiative is to find feasible solutions and develop test methods. To achieve this, the consortium intends to spend the first half of 2018 analyzing the problem. In addition to this it wants to put a draft proposal to the European Commission by the end of 2018 stating which knowledge needs to be developed in order to work on possible solutions. The declaration is incredibly vague.

The five companies (AISE, CIRFS, European Outdoor Group, Euratex, Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry) could, however, save themselves months of effort, since the European Commission already had research carried out into synthetic microfibers long ago. The main conclusion of the Mermaids Life+ project is that 600,000 and 17,700,000 microfibers are released during every five-kilo wash (an average of six million per wash). This and other results were published at the end of 2017 in the scientific journal Environmental Pollution. The Mermaids project also developed an analysis method based on scanning a filter (with a mesh size of 5 µm) using an electron microscope. This makes it possible to count the number of fibers released per wash relatively accurately.

So why has the consortium failed to even mention research carried out by the European Mermaids project, while at the same time saying it wants to analyze the problem and focus on developing harmonized test methods? After all the problem has long been analyzed, not just by Mermaids, but also by other research groups, such as the one led by professor Richard Thompson of the University of Plymouth. The results of which are largely consistent. There is currently enough known on which synthetic materials release more or fewer fibers, which temperatures reduce fiber release and whether, for example, it matters which detergent is used.

So what is actually going on? Measures to prevent fiber loss will be radical and that is a huge threat to the whole textile chain. The joint action taken by the five industrial organizations is a tried and tested strategy, which could be described as ‘obstructive cooperation’. It entails recognizing that there is a problem and then taking as much time as possible to analyze and research it. The essential thing is to avoid or influence government regulation by being the first to announce action.

The European Commission should have set conditions for measures aimed at reducing the loss of fibers and it should have done so on the basis of the European Mermaids life+ project.

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Millions of microfibers in wastewater from every wash

Amsterdam, 24 November 2017 – Between 600,000 and 17,700,000 microfibers are released in every 5-kilo wash; that is the equivalent of 0.43 to 1.27 grams in weight. Wastewater rinses these fibers during washing and most end up in the surface water, because water purification installations are not equipped to stop them. The fibers are extremely small and their numbers are endless. As a result, they enter the food chain relatively easily. This is one of the main conclusions of the European Mermaids Life+ project, whose results have now been published in the magazine Environmental Pollution.

In a recent report, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all primary microplastics in the oceans originate from machine-washed synthetic textiles, making this the largest source of microplastics, with car tire wear in second place at 28%.

So how many plastic microfibers are released during a single wash and does the way in which you wash make a difference? The Italian and Spanish researchers developed an analysis method based on scanning a filter (mesh size 5 µm) using an electron microscope, which can fairly accurately count how many fibers have been released after a wash. This method made it possible to calculate whether the temperature at which you wash or the type of synthetic material (woven or knitted) matters.

The Mermaids research shows that woven polyester textiles release the most microfibers compared to knitted polyester and woven polypropylene. Both washing powder and liquid washing detergents increases the number of fibers released compared to just using water. Use of liquid detergent is better than washing powder. It apparently makes a big difference whether or not you use fabric softener, since it reduces the number of fibers by more than 35%. Higher temperatures, longer wash durations and water hardness also have a negative impact, depending on the type of synthetic material. Fewer fibers are released when liquid detergents are used rather than washing powder and domestic washing generates fewer fibers than industrial washing.

The Dutch government is looking into which policy measures can be taken to combat three sources of microplastics; tires, paint and cleaning products. Textiles were not taken into consideration because they are already being researched through the Mermaids project. Some policy measures to drastically reduce the quantity of microfibers can be deduced from the recently published article. These are the most obvious ones:

  • Promoting liquid detergents rather than washing powders
  • Using fabric softener
  • Setting standards for the production of synthetic textiles.

However, even if all these measures were to be taken, it would not solve the problem by a long way.

Photo: Mermaids research.

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Fish ingest less microplastics than assumed

Recently, an Argentinian study was published into microplastics in coastal freshwater fish captured at the Rio de la Plata. Eighty-seven fish belonging to eleven different species were studied. Microplastics were found in all fish. Plastic microfibers represented 96% of the microplastics.

However, a other research from Wageningen shows an entirely different result. Four hundred North Sea fish belonging to four different species were studied on the presence of microplastics (bigger than 20 μm). Just two microplastics were found in one fish, a sprat. How can we explain the vast difference between these two studies?

The researchers from Wageningen found it suspicious that earlier researches had reported relatively large amounts of microplastics in fish. They suspected contamination; pollution of the fish by the researchers of the earlier studies, such as fibres from clothing worn during the investigation or the presence of plastic particles in the air. That is why this time the research was designed in such a way that contamination could be eliminated.

Their conclusion: fish possibly ingest less microplastics than is generally thought.

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Garbage patch larger than France and Germany discovered in the South Pacific Ocean

The Algalita Marine Research and Education Foundation has returned from an expedition to the South Pacific Gyre in the South Pacific Ocean. The organisation found a worrying amount of plastic there.

The expedition was led by Captain Charles Moore, who discovered the plastic soup in 1997 and gave it its name. Since then he has done thorough research into the plastic soup in the North Pacific Gyre, a rotating ocean current in the North Pacific Ocean. Given the vast amount of plastic that is accumulating there, it is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Algalita gave the name the South Pacific Garbage Patch to the high concentration of plastic that it recently discovered in the South Pacific Ocean. The South Pacific Garbage Patch covers an area of at least one million square kilometers, which is larger than the surface area of Germany and France combined. Most of the plastic consists of microplastics such as microbeads, microfibers from clothing, and small fragments from weathered large pieces of plastic.

Click here for our file on Microplastics

In 2009, Algalita recorded six kilos of plastic for every kilo of plankton in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The ratio of plastic to plankton is not yet known for the South Pacific Garbage Patch. However, Charles Moore expects that the amount of plastic there is about 10 years behind the northern gyre.

Click here for our file on Gyres and Hotspots

The difference in the amount of plastic used between the northern and southern hemispheres could explain this. Europe and the United States of America have used huge amounts of plastic for years, while regions such as South America and Asia are now catching up.

According to the researchers, the solution lies in reducing the amount of plastic that people produce, use and dispose of around the world. It is important to stop plastic leakage into the environment at source. This is the only way that we can ultimately stop plastic from entering the ocean. Once it is in the ocean, it is virtually impossible to remove.

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Microplastic pollution in Antarctica extremely serious

Until now Antarctica was seen as a pristine and untouched wilderness with relatively little plastic pollution, but the opposite is true. According to a recently published study the quantity of microplastics in the waters around Antarctica are five times greater that presumed up to now.

The Antarctic Ocean covers around 8.5 million square kilometers and represents 5.4% of the earth’s oceans. The marine ecosystem is vulnerable. Krill (small shrimplike animals) make up a large and important component for whales, seals and penguins inhabiting this area. Krill which mistakes microplastics for food are a potentially poisonous source of food.

British researchers have studied all available information about the flow or microplastics to the Antarctic Sea. They have calculated that up to 500 kilos of microbeads from personal care products and 25.5 billion synthetic fibers enter the waters per decade as a result of tourism, fishing and scientific activities in the area. It is unknown whether microplastics flow there from other oceans.

Although the scientific data on exact quantities is limited, it is known that microplastics are found in all layers of the Antarctic Ocean, including the sea floor off the coast of the South Pole. Recent research by Adventure Science shows that the sea around the Antarctic Peninsula contains an average 22 pieces of microplastic per liter. Another study carried out off the Southern Shetland Islands discovered up to 766 plastic particles per square meter at depths between six and 11 meters.

Dr. Catherine Waller, ecology expert and marine biologist at the British University of Hull said in a press release by British Antarctic Survey: “Our results indicate that urgent research needs to be done into the quantities of microplastics in the Antarctic Ocean and around the Antarctic continent.”

Consult our microplastic soup dossier for more information on this subject.

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Plastic microfibers found in the heart of the Himalayas

At the foot of the holy Langju Glacier, at nearly 6.5 kilometers altitude, at the very heart of the Himalayas, a blue plastic microfiber was found. The fiber was found in a water sample taken from the mountain by a team from Vertical Nepal in October 2016.

The government of Nepal recently opened the holy Langju Himal area to the public. Vertical Nepal, an expedition led by the Arctic explorer Lonnie Durpre, used the occasion to collect water samples for the Adventure Scientists’ Global Microplastics Initiative. The Adventure Scientists are collecting as much data as possible on microplastics and plan to use the data to stop microplastic leakage into the environment.

The newly explored area has never been visited by people before. The expedition team was then very surprised that the water sample contained plastic. How the plastic fiber got there is still a mystery. One of the Adventure Scientists’ theories is that plastic fibers were carried to the mountain on the wind. This would explain why plastic was found in places where people have never been.

According to researchers at King’s College London, the current methods of testing air pollution needs to be adapted to include microplastics. In Paris, fallout from microfibers was measured for the first time last year. For one year, the microfibers that floated down in the air were counted in two locations – in Paris itself and in a town just outside Paris. The fibers, some of which were plastic, land on land or in water and then flow out to sea. They ultimately become part of the plastic soup.

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Cora Ball ‘catches’ microfibers from clothing

The Plastic Soup Foundation congratulates the Rozalia Project’s Rachel Miller on her successful Cora Ball Kickstarter campaign to reduce pollution. The Kickstarter campaign reached its goal of $10,000 within three hours and is currently at over$162,000.

Millions of minute synthetic fibers are released every time we wash synthetic clothing. The fibers are washed with the laundry water into the environment, enter the food chain and end up on our plates. The Cora Ball is one of the first innovative solutions for this problem.

The design of the Cora Ball is a form of biomimicry – technology that is inspired and based on mechanisms in nature. One potential solution for the problem of plastic fibers in the ocean actually comes from the ocean itself. The Cora Ball is inspired by coral’s ability to filter minute food particles from flowing water. The water in washing machines flows past the Cora Ball and the microfibers stick to its stalks.

To make the scale of the problem easier to visualize, Miller gives the comparison that if only ten percent of American households would use the Cora Ball, it would prevent more than thirty million plastic bottles from entering the environment.

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation says that “This is a wonderful blend of female intuition and technology. That this project is successful just shows that the best innovative ideas can come from special people and that the cleverest ideas are often the simplest. Rachel Miller lives high up a mountain in Vermont and has just about achieved this by herself. This is laudable.”