Let’s first take a closer look at the main culprit: microfibers are tiny plastic strands that come off of our synthetic clothes when we wash them. They travel through wastewater pipes and mostly end up in the soil, rivers, oceans, providing our descendants with almost eternal remnants to dig out.
You'll find them everywhere
Meanwhile, microfibers have been found in the Mariana trench, both poles, the Himalayas - and everywhere in between. And even if you don’t search for them, microfibers will find you: they are already in our food, tap water, beer, veggies and salt. If you want to learn more about microfiber pollution at this point, check our blog post.
Microfibers vs microplastics: what is the difference
Microfibers are a type of microplastics, but they also have unique properties that some believe cause more harm than your usual microbead - these are little bits of plastics, often used in facial scrubs and soaps.
What gives microfibers a super-polluter badge is their shape (it may increase the likeliness of blockages in the digestive tracts) and the cocktail of chemicals attached to the fibre. Some of these chemicals pose a health risk - we talk more about those below.
Microfibers are sneaky and persistent. They will find all kinds of ways into our bodies, whether it’s through food, air or even skin. According to a 2020 review, microplastics smaller than twenty micrometres could then already infiltrate organs. Those smaller than ten micrometres (length of a bacteria) may enter the placenta, liver, muscles, and brain.
The concern that we are exposed to microfibers through what we eat is real. They are regularly found inside fish and shellfish that are sold on the markets. Researchers from Iran, for example, found them in the tissues of fish caught in the Persian Gulf. Researchers say that eating lots of these fish “may pose a health threat”.
Another microfiber entry point is through the air. When you shake out a blanket or a carpet, you also send hundreds of tiny fibres into the air. One-third of all household dust is plastics (mostly consisting of microfibers) that eventually descends - possibly on a plate of tasty mussels that you’re having for dinner. In fact – there are potentially a hundred times more microfibres that fall on a meal of mussels from the air than there are microfibers in the mussels themselves, according to research, published in Environmental Pollution.
One credit card, please
How many consumed microfibers are we talking about, anyway? One recent study calculated that people consume about five grams of plastics each week - roughly an equivalent of a credit card. The reason why our bodies haven’t become a living Lego store by this point is the human excretory system. By some estimates, up to 90 percent of microplastics that go in also go out via poop.
In any case, the research into the ingested and inhaled microfibers is not yet conclusive. Experts say the exact numbers here are crucial – a low exposure to microfibers is perhaps not a reason for concern, a higher one could pose certain health risks.
Microfiber health risks: what do we know so far
A picture is still emerging of what all this pollution amounts to how it affects human health. But the first results don’t exactly paint a rosy picture.
For starters, inhaled polyester and nylon microfibers may stunt the ability of the lungs to repair themselves. In a recently published Dutch research, scientists have isolated lung cells, put them in a Petri dish where these cells have grown into “mini-lungs” - a tissue that replicates much of the complexity of the lungs.
“What we found was disturbing,” says doctor Barbro Melgert from the University of Groningen who was working on the research. “Mini-lungs reacted strongly to nylon fibres – they have stopped forming. This can have big implications - if you breathe in a lot of these fibres and the lungs don’t have the capacity to repair themselves, the fibres may damage your lungs,” she explained in a Plastic Soup Foundation’s video on YouTube.
Inhalation of microfiber could also lead to respiratory problems, inflammation, asthma, bronchitis and autoimmune diseases. These and other health issues are unfortunately nothing new for millions of textile workers, especially those working with nylon and polyester.
The main culprit here is not necessarily a microfiber itself, but rather its power to absorb and leech harmful chemicals, experts say. Doctor Melgert and her team of researchers suggest the same. She especially highlights BPA or bisphenol A – an industrial chemical, found in polycarbonate plastics. Exposure to BPA is a concern as it may affect the brain and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children. Some research also suggests a possible link between BPA and increased blood pressure.
There is much more where BPA comes from. Microfibers are often soaked in a cocktail of hazardous chemicals that are added during their production. These chemicals are used to give fibres colour, resistance against mould and prolong their life. They are also associated with a wide range of health risks: from impaired brain development to learning disabilities and increased incidents of cancers.
Here are some of the chemicals, regularly used in microfiber production:
- Plasticizers that make materials softer and are often made from phthalates
- UV stabilizers that protect the plastic from UV rays
- Lubricants that reduce friction and wear
The potential danger is not only what we add to microfibers, but also what these plastics particles pick up on their journey - viruses and bacteria, for instance. Researchers have in fact found more than a dozen species of Vibrio bacteria holding onto microplastics, including microfibers. These bacteria are pathogens and can cause severe, even fatal infections in humans. “Ingestion of microplastics by marine organisms consumed by humans may pose a public health concern,” say the authors of the study.
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Microfiber health risks: All the dots are already there
The bottom line is that, at the moment, we don’t know for sure how toxic microfibers are and what health risks they pose to you and me. Researchers are also just figuring out how many of these tiny plastic bits do we eat and inhale in the first place.
But we already have lots of indirect evidence. “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,” explains Sherri Mason, a professor of chemistry and leading researcher in freshwater plastic pollution. “The dots are already there, and it doesn’t take much imagination to connect them.”
What you can do to lower the exposure to health risks
- Drink filtered tap water and avoid bottled water
- Avoid pre-prepared food in plastic packaging
- Avoid seafood
- Consider buying clothes, blankets and carpets made out of natural fibres (organic cotton, wool, linen, hemp, silk, etc.)
- Use a filter, such as PlanetCare, to capture microfibers before enter the sewage system.