Wearing Synthetics. And Eating Them Too?

Synthetic fibers in a sweater can end up in the food chain.

The troubling news that plastic waste is piling up on ocean shores worldwide is not new. In May 2004 the BBC had this report, Plastic Fibre a Major Pollutant

While a picture is worth a thousand words, the plastic bottles shown in that article don’t tell the whole story, because it’s plastic fiber, as stated in the headline, that is the source of concern. Writing in a 2004 Science article, authors Thompson et al. noted:

Over the past 40 years, large items of plastic debris have frequently been recorded in habitats from the poles to the equator. Smaller fragments, probably also plastic, have been reported  but have received far less attention.

In the article, a variety of plastic types and sources were noted from samples taken mostly in the U.K.:

Nine polymers were conclusively identified: acrylic, alkyd, poly (ethylene:propylene), polyamide (nylon), polyester, polyethylene, polymethylacrylate, polypropylene, and polyvinyl-alcohol. These have a wide range of uses, including clothing, packaging, and rope, suggesting that the fragments resulted from the breakdown of larger items.

Scary stuff, this pile of pollution floating around the globe, due to our wide usage of plastics.

More alarming still is this article was published in fall of 2011: “Accumulation of Microplastic worldwide: Sources and Sinks” in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

In this article, authors M.A. Browne et al. (including Dr. Thompson from the 2004 research)  looked at finer, smaller pieces of plastic. The group found contaminants at 18 shorelines worldwide, including  locations at the poles and the equator.

In the 2011 work the authors used a bit of forensics to refine more precisely the origins of the plastic fibers. The microplastics were traced back to sewage and then to washing machine waste water.

To be more direct, these plastic fibers, which are found not only on beaches worldwide, but also accumulating inside marine creatures, are coming from clothing. Synthetic clothing.

The researchers found the largest concentrations of plastic fiber in sewage from urban areas, though in the 18 sites they examined around the world, all showed plastic fibers. Fibers types were typically polyester, polyamide (nylon) and acrylic.

They examined the results of washing of synthetic clothing and found up to 1,900 fibers released from a single garment per washing.

Anyone that pays attention to fiber content of their clothing, knows that synthetics continue to creep into our apparel. Nylon is routinely added to sweaters and tops, in part to give some shaping and stretch to the garment. Acrylic is particularly common in lower priced clothing.

My fabric of choice during these cold Wisconsin winter months has been microfleece. This fabric is common in the indoor and outdoor wear many of us use. It feels great to wear, keeps warmth in, yet breathes and thus allows perspiration to escape. If you’ve ever cross-country skied, snowshoed or jogged outdoors wearing a microfleece jacket, you know how frost accumulates on the outer surface after a good hour or two of vigorous activity.

At home we try to keep the furnace turned down, both to keep expenses low and to decrease the amount of petro burned. It’s one small piece toward keeping pollution to a minimum. Wearing warm clothing helps make the lowered indoor temps bearable.

However, now that I know that washing microfleece is source of plastic fibers that may end up in the food we eat, think it’s time to pull on cotton and wool sweaters and put away the fleece.

Possibly the most concerning piece of the story is evidence, says Dr. Browne, that these small plastic fibers are making their way into the food chain. Fibers consumed by marine creatures have been found in the stomach and eventually the circulatory system of some animals.

Obviously, this is not the sort of dietary fiber we want to consume.

Dr. M.A. Browne is a member of the research-based  network National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis  based in the U.S.


Brown et al. (2011) Environ. Sci. Technol. 45, 9175–9.
DOI: 10.1021/es201811s

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Kari Kenefick

Kari Kenefick

Kari has been a science writer/editor for Promega since 1996. Prior to that she enjoyed working in veterinary microbiology/immunology, and has an M.S. in Bacteriology, U of WI-Madison. Favorite topics include infectious disease, inflammation, aging, exercise, nutrition and personality traits. When not writing, she enjoys training her dogs in agility and obedience. About the practice of writing, as we say for cell-based assays, "add-mix-measure".

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