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Plastic microfiber pollution threatens Great Lakes environment

Plastic microfibers

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(NaturalNews) Abandoning the use of plastic in clothing, as well as a number of other consumer products, may be the key to reducing environmental pollution caused by microscopic bits of plastic, according to a report by the Chicago Tribune.

Similar to the way plastic waste is polluting our oceans, tiny microscopic pieces of plastic are showing up in the Great Lakes of North America, particularly Lake Michigan. Often invisible to the naked eye, the "minuscule filaments," which are fractions of a millimeter in diameter, are very tiny fibers made from a variety of petroleum-based materials such as polyester and nylon that shed from clothing when laundered.

"Microplastic litter," as some scientists call it, can also be derived from personal care products such as toothpaste and body washes that contain abrasive plastic beads. Several states, including Colorado, Illinois, Arizona, Washington, Hawaii and others, have either proposed or implemented legislation banning these so-called microbeads.

Could bacteria-absorbing microplastics end up in our drinking water?

Too small to be filtered out by washing machines, the tiny microfibers eventually make their way through to local sewage treatment plants where they are also flushed out largely unfiltered, increasing the likelihood that they'll end up in the drinking water.

While studies on the impact of tiny microplastics in lakes and rivers are relatively few, new research in this field continues to emerge. During a 2013 sampling run of Lake Michigan, researchers discovered more than 19,000 strands per square kilometer after using fine mesh nets to strain water near the surface.

"Microfibers accounted for about 16 percent of the plastic dredged from the water, compared with 4 percent of what they found in the rest of the Great Lakes," reports the Tribune.

"The bigger question is, are we contaminating ourselves with this mismanagement of waste?"

Not only are masses of tiny bits of plastic unsightly, but they also have the ability to absorb chemicals and bacteria, which can be harmful to both humans and sea life. Fish are inadvertently eating the microfibers and microbeads, which can then lodge in the stomach and intestines, potentially causing fatal damage in aquatic life, researchers say.

"If we are finding it in fish, it's not a huge leap of faith to think it's in people, too," said Sherri Mason, a chemist at the State University of New York at Fredonia who is part of a team of scientists studying plastic pollution in the region.

While the impact of plastic pollution in the ocean is better understood, little is known about the significance of microplastic litter in the Great Lakes region; however, early signs indicate that the effects are not good.

Tiny bits of plastic absorb polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, cancer-causing chemicals emitted when fossil fuels are burned, explains Lorena Rios Mendoza, a chemist at the University of Wisconsin at Superior who has been studying this issue.

The levels of chemicals in small pieces of plastic floating in Lake Erie were double those of microplastics scooped out of the Atlantic Ocean at the same time, reported Mendoza.


Since microfibers have a large surface area in relation to their size, there are more places for chemicals and bacteria to latch onto, said Mendoza. "We can't see this pollution, so it could be tempting to think it isn't a problem," she said. "But this microplastic is like a sponge that doesn't go away."

Some experts say resorting back to natural fabrics made of cotton and wool could help curb microplastic litter. Others suggest manufacturers determine whether better filters could be added to washing machines, a system similar to the way the dryer traps lint from clothes. Upgrading sewage treatment plants, however, would be much more costly.

"This is another example of how we put things in the marketplace without any thought about the long-term consequences," said Mason, who is still working on the unpublished findings.

"I would never tell anybody in Chicago to give up their fleece, especially when it's 7 degrees outside. But what is in our water eventually is in us. We need to be more concerned about that."







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