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Home Washing Machines: Source Of Potentially Harmful Ocean ‘Microplastic’ Pollution

December 21, 2011

The latest episode in the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) award-winning “Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions” podcast series discusses the discovery that household washing machines seem to be a major source of so-called “microplastic” pollution — bits of polyester and acrylic smaller than the head of a pin — that researchers now have detected on ocean shorelines worldwide.

In the podcast, Mark Anthony Browne, Ph.D., explains that the accumulation of microplastic debris in marine environments has raised health and safety concerns. The bits of plastic contain potentially harmful ingredients which go into the bodies of animals and could be transferred to people who consume fish. Ingested microplastic can transfer and persist into their cells for months. How big is the problem of microplastic contamination? Where are these materials coming from? To answer those questions, the scientists looked for microplastic contamination along 18 coasts around the world and did some detective work to track down a likely source of this contamination.

They found more microplastic on shores in densely populated areas and identified an important source – wastewater from household washing machines. They point out that more than 1,900 fibers can rinse off of a single garment during a wash cycle, and these fibers look just like the microplastic debris on shorelines. The problem, they say, is likely to intensify in the future. In the podcast, Browne suggests solutions: “Designers of clothing and washing machines should consider the need to reduce the release of fibers into wastewater. Research is needed to develop methods for removing microplastic from sewage and determine which fibers pose less of a problem for habitats, animals and humans.”

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