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Dirty Laundry: Synthetic fabrics release harmful microfibers into the water supply

doing laundry poisons food chain acrylic fibers under electron microscope plymouth university
Plymouth University

There’s a problem with our laundry and it doesn’t matter what detergent we use. Synthetic fabrics in our clothing release up to 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers every time we do a load of laundry. Environmentalists have posited the problem, but now researchers at Plymouth University have proven that it happens, according to Gizmodo.

The Plymouth study, published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, considered the mass, quantity, and size of microplastic fibers that are dumped into the water supply when synthetic fabrics are washed at normal temperatures. Measuring the number of fibers released from 13 pound loads of clothing of various fabrics found that polyester-cotton blend fabric released 138,000 strands, polyester releases 496,000 fiber strands, and acrylic sheds up to 729,000 fibers. The numbers were determined by measuring the post-wash wastewater under an electron microscope.

Related: Don’t suds it up: How much laundry detergent should you use?

So what’s the problem with these fibers? The issue with microplastic fibers is that they are very small — tiny enough to go through many conventional filters — but also capable of absorbing toxins such as PCBs, pesticides, and motor oil. The fibers end up being ingested at the bottom of the food chain and then passed up the chain, harming animals along the way and eventually becoming a threat to the whole chain, and getting worse as more microplastics continue to enter the water supply.

With the proof in hand that synthetic fibers are a credible threat, the next step is what to do about the problem. People aren’t going to stop wearing or washing clothes. As Plymouth University professor Richard Thompson said, “The societal benefits of textiles are without question and so any voluntary or policy intervention should be directed toward reducing emissions either via changes in textile design or filtration of [wastewater], or both.”

In addition to potential changes in clothing design and manufacturing, altering laundry factors such as duration, filters, and spin cycle speeds may also make a difference in the amount of microplastic fibers thrown off.