“Microplastics” – tiny, often microscopic particles of plastic infiltrating our environment – have gotten plenty of negative press over the past few years. Just two weeks ago, we discussed a recent report suggesting we may be eating as many as 11,000 of these miniscule plastic pieces each year. But the term “microplastics” might hide the location of some of these problematic particles. A more specific type of microplastic known as “microfibers” could also be having a significant impact on our food chain and you’re probably wearing some right now.
Despite their far more innocent sounding name, microfibers are also tiny bits of plastic, but they are in the form synthetic fibers less than a millimeter in length. These fibers have become commonplace in high-tech clothing intended to keep people warm, dry and comfortable. But ironically, though this gear is typically worn by outdoorsy types, the microfibers these articles of clothing release are silently littering our environment. In a recent piece entitled “Are We Eating Our Fleece Jackets?” NPR cites research showing that, much like other microplastics, microfibers are ending up in everything from table salt to fish caught along the California coast. “Microfibers seem to be one of the most common plastic debris items in animals and environmental samples,” Chelsea Rochman, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Toronto, St. George, told NPR.
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Studies show that one of the most common ways microfibers get into the environment is through the laundry. A paper published last year provided evidence that each wash of a single microfiber-containing jacket released up to two grams of these plastics, which can go down the drain and into water treatment plants where they’re often so small they evade filters and slip out into the environment, eventually finding their way into our food supply. “I have no doubt that every time I eat oysters and mussels I eat at least one microfiber,” Rochman later stated.
The biggest problem, however, is that, much like other microplastics, we simply don’t know what the effect of these fibers are. “There's no proven causal relationship with health issues,” Gregg Treinish, who founded the nonprofit Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, told NPR, “but I don't want to spend the next 50 years eating it and then learn I shouldn't have been.” The tricky part is that the microfiber footprint is already so big that may happen whether we want it to or not.