Plastics have revolutionized the world since making their debut in the early 1900s. The synthetic polymers are cheap to produce, versatile, lightweight, and durable. But tiny plastic microfibers are causing huge public health and environmental problems worldwide, experts say.
Because they don’t break down like natural materials, they are accumulating — in the environment, our food supply, and even our bodies.
A recent study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology concluded that synthetic microfibers make up 85 percent of shoreline debris worldwide. And researchers place much of the blame on clothes washing.
“Experiments sampling wastewater from domestic washing machines demonstrated that a single garment can produce more than 1,900 fibers per wash,” said the researchers. “This suggests that a large proportion of microplastic fibers found in the marine environment may be derived from sewage as a consequence of washing of clothes.”
There appears to be nowhere on Earth unaffected by microfibers.
The Bozeman, Mont.-based environmental non-profit group Adventure Scientists has collected 2,500 samples worldwide and found that a whopping 78 percent contain microplastics.
“We’ve collected microplastic samples everywhere from remote regions in the Himalayas to San Francisco Bay,” says Adventure Scientists spokesperson Victoria Ortiz. “They’re primarily microfibers, which are shed from nylon and fleece clothing, and they work their way into our oceans, rivers, lakes and streams.”
And what gets into the water gets into the sea life and seafood we eat.
“One problem is that pollutants adhere to these tiny pieces of plastic, and then they get consumed by organisms like fish — and then we eat the fish,” notes Ortiz.
Adventure Scientists researcher Abigail Barrows recent told the Washington Post that virtually every water sample collected by the organization has had high levels of microplastics.
“I open up a box of water — it's from some beautiful place in Palau, or it's from Antarctica — and it's just full of fragments,” she said. “I haven't seen a sample that doesn't contain an alarming amount of plastic.”
It’s not just ocean waters that are affected, says researcher Sherri Mason, who has been studying microplastics proliferation in fresh water.
“In one study of 25 species of fish from Lake Erie, all were contaminated with plastics, with about 95 percent of it being microfibers,” she tells Newsmax Health. “You could see how they were woven into the fish’s gastrointestinal tract, meaning they aren’t being excreted.”
That’s particularly alarming, she adds, because the microfibers contain and/or absorb toxic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PBCs), bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and polyhydromatic hydrocarbons.
Although there’s limited data showing how microfibers affect the health of sea life, and people who eat it, Mason says it doesn’t take much imagination to connect the dots.
“We’ve established the ubiquity of these plastics, we’ve established that they are being ingested, we know that plastics absorb toxic chemicals, and we know the health impact of those chemicals,” says Mason, chair of the Geology and Environmental Science Department at the State University of New York-Fredonia.
“But from a scientific standpoint, we can’t yet provide a direct correlation between microfibers and disease.”
Still, she says it’s better to be safe than sorry.
“I go by the precautionary principal, which says that when you have a reason to be concerned, you act,” Mason explains. “You can’t always wait for the data to come in.”
The little bit of data that has been filtering in is alarming. One study found that microfibers increased mortality in water fleas, and others showed that they reduced the appetite in crabs, Norway lobster, and worms.
Following a study funded by the outdoor outfitters Patagonia, researchers at the University of California-Santa Barbara concluded: “Microplastics and microfibers have been found in marine species directly consumed by humans, the effects of which are unknown.”
In any case, Adventure Scientists executive director Gregg Treinish isn’t taking any chances. He says he’s given up eating seafood.
Treinish told the Guardian, “I don’t want to have eaten fish for 50 years and then say, ‘Oh, whoops!’ ”
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