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Billions of clothing microfibres leaking into Toronto wastewater

News Staff and Erica Natividad | posted Monday, Nov 11th, 2019

Our clothes are polluting our water, damaging wildlife and potentially harming our health, according to new research from the University of Toronto.

A team of scientists at U of T is currently investigating the effect of microfibre pollution on the environment, including how it affects wildlife and bodies of water.

Microfibres are tiny thread-like fibres which shed from fabrics like carpets, furniture and clothing. They are what appear in dryer lint traps, but aren’t always visible to the naked eye.

Droves of the tiny pollutant shed from clothing during laundry cycles and through the water used in washers, ending up in wastewater.

Lisa Erdle, a researcher at U of T, says a single load of laundry can release hundreds of thousands of microfibres into the environment and “can have physical or chemical impacts on wildlife when they enter the food web.”

The fibres from synthetic materials contain plastic that don’t fully break down and natural fibres are typically treated with harmful chemicals or dyes, Erdle added.

“We’ve seen from research that when animals ingest microfibres, it can lead to changes in feeding behaviour and altered growth,” said Erdle. “There are many known endocrine disruptors, chemicals which are carcinogenic, that are associated with these microfibres.”

The study has also calculated how much microfibre pollution Toronto could be generating.

They have found that if the 1.2 million households ran an average of 219 loads of laundry, the city could be releasing up to 36 trillion microfibres into wastewater every year.

Water treatment plants do remove the large majority of microplastics — up to 99 per cent, but that still leaves 200 billion tiny fibres that are released into the environment.

Even more ends up in the environment after the sludge byproduct of wastewater treatment is spread on farmers’ fields — only to be washed into the watershed when it rains.

The effect on humans is still unknown, Erdle said and research is just beginning into the potential health concerns associated with the fibres.

“We’re literally eating and drinking some of the waste from our laundry. So I think there is cause for concern,” said Erdle. “We know that they have negative effects to wildlife and the research is just beginning in looking into human health.”

There are a few ways to prevent microfibres from ending up in water systems, but the main one they have focused on is a filter that attaches to washing machines, catching fibres before they go down the drain.

Erdle tells CityNews the research team has partnered with environmental charity Georgian Bay Forever to help develop the filters and test them in homes.

She adds the next logical step to help reduce the amount of pollutants entering the environment would be to have them pre-built into washing machines.

 

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