Are Microfibers a Future Health Risk?
I first met Elsa through our EcoChallenge.org discussion group, reading through Seeing Systems last summer and fall. She joined our group again early this year to read and discuss A Different Way. Both times, we all enjoyed her perspectives, wit and wisdom. I'm glad she decided share this guest blog on a subject she's clearly passionate about, and probably, you should be too. - Jana
By Elsa Meinig
Sustainable Wenatchee’s Earth Day Fair on April 17th was an excellent opportunity to get in contact with different informative organizations from the Wenatchee Valley, while learning how to be responsible and contribute towards a clean environment. Jana Fischback, executive director of Sustainable Wenatchee, guided me to organizations with a focus on water. The representatives in these booths told me about water conservation, water pollution, endangered salmon/fish cycle, water treatment processes, but nobody could address my concerns about microplastics and microfibers in the water.
Microfibers? Microplastics? If they are minuscule particles, why should we care if they are in the water supply? I have been following the news about the way plastic breaks down into ever-smaller pieces and can now be found everywhere, in the oceans, in the air, in ecosystems, in animals, and even in our bodies. If this is the case, then what will happen to future generations being born today? Can these microplastics and microfibers (like fleece) keep accumulating in human bodies until they are toxic to our organs or disrupt systems? These questions motivated me to research further.
I looked for scientific journal articles and learned that tap water and plastic bottled water in cities on five continents are contaminated with microscopic plastic fibers. Scientists say they are not sure yet what the health risks might be, but experts suspect plastic fibers may transfer chemicals when consumed by animals and humans. I called the City of Wenatchee to ask about water quality monitoring of microplastics and they told me they follow the guidelines from the EPA. I connected with the EPA about microplastics and microfibers in the water (twice). They did not provide me with satisfactory answers.
So, my husband and I decided to buy a reliable (we think) water filter that filters 99.9% of microplastics and microfibers from ZEROWATER. But, that is not a real solution; to truly address the problem, we have to start with the supply. Did you know that many clothing manufacturers have moved away from natural fibers that take land and water to grow cotton crops or rear sheep for wool? Instead, they can buy petrochemicals and turn them into clothes. Our clothes are made from plastics like polyester, nylon, acrylic, and polyamide. So, every time we wash these materials, they shed millions of plastic microfibers which drain from our washing machines through wastewater treatment plants and into the river or the sea. They also accumulate during the treatment process and continue on in biosolids, which are used to fertilize crops. We don't yet know the extent of harm these microplastics cause in our water and soil.
Many of us are trying to do the right thing and buy products made from recycled plastic bottles to reduce plastic pollution. We need to realize that there are other consequences to ecosystems and human health when these plastic materials degrade. Plastics are made to be indestructible, so even if they are called ‘single-use’ they never really disappear. Jana Fischback sent me an interesting website which I am sharing with you about some steps we all can take to avoid sending more microfibers into our rivers and oceans. Of course, we need to reduce our purchases of plastic products, but if we already have synthetic fiber clothing, then there are various filters that can help prevent microfibers from escaping your washing machines.
In the meantime, I am talking to doctors and friends to raise awareness of this problem in our community. Some people know about it, others do not. My next goal is to write to all my elected officials requesting them to take action against the risk to our health and environment! I have come to realize that we all live in our own bubble. Every organization has its own agenda, which is good. Now is the time to open those agendas to add a common goal to reduce “microfibers” and start talking to each other about it. I am stepping out from my bubble right this minute to reach out to all of you! Government, corporations, manufacturers, retailers, educators, and consumers need to work together towards a solution. We need to be proactive and take responsibility for our actions and lack of action for the sake of future generations.
Here are links to two articles that inspired Elsa. Please read for more information.