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Scientists Discuss Growing Microfiber Pollution Problem

In the last year or so many people have become familiar with microbeads — the microscopic abrasive balls in cosmetic and other cleansing products that experts say harm the environment.  Hundreds of millions of the microbeads have been flushed into the nation’s waterways and researchers are studying their impact on fisheries and the food chain. This week, Mountain Lake PBS in Plattsburgh taped a forum on the environmental hazards of microbeads. The scientists also pointed out that microfibers are harming the region’s waterways.In mid-December President Obama signed a law banning microbeads.  

But you know that fleece vest you love to wear? Every time you wash it, tiny plastic fibers are flushed down the drain. They’re too small for a washing machine or dryer’s lint filters to catch.  And they’re even too small to be filtered at wastewater treatment facilities.  Lake Champlain Committee Staff Scientist Mike Winslow explains the difference between microbeads and microfibers.   “Microfibers are little pieces of plastic that are coming off of clothing or eroding perhaps from other plastic products. They’re a breakdown of something larger produced as little beads as scouring agents and cosmetics in toothpastes and soaps. And so they're made as beads. They have a much rounder shape under a microscope. You can distinguish them quite clearly.”

Both are polluting waterways.  SUNY Plattsburgh Associate Professor of Environmental Science Dr. Danielle Garneau is studying microplastic pollution in Lake Champlain.  She’s found the vast majority are microfibers.  “What we're seeing now is an awful lot of synthetic fiber moving into the water and then up the food chain. The majority of the stuff that's moving, the microplastics moving into the food web, in these freshwater systems are fibers as opposed to the beads, which have been banned.”

Winslow said during the forum the fibers raise a number of ecological concerns.   “These small particles can attract toxins too, PCB’s and other things, and that's a mechanism for these toxins to get into the food chain. They can also just be filler for the organisms that ingest them.”

SUNY Plattsburgh Lake Champlain Research Institute Sea Grant Extension Specialist Mark Malchoff: “If you’re affecting the growth of a particular species or a particular life stage that's got to have some implications up the line.”
Winslow:  “The plastics are a junk food both literally and figuratively. They're filling the stomachs of the organisms but not providing any nutritional value.”

Because monthly samples of zooplankton have been saved since 1994, Garneau hopes to chart an historical timeline to determine when and what types of plastics have been introduced to the water.   “We're just taking tiny sub fractions from each of those samples and even with that the numbers are tremendous. So I think it would be very difficult to put a handle on exactly how much is out there but it's a lot.”

Garneau reported that 90 percent of all species samples tested, including perch, smelt, bass and cormorants, showed evidence of microfibers.   
Malchoff notes that research is in the early stages and there is much unknown about microfibers and their potential ramifications.   “Step one is increasing people's awareness of the problem. And I think we're seeing some progress on that and step two will be what are some of the solutions.  And along with that there's going to have to be some very applied research. Somebody can come up with a better filter for a washing machine but there's going to have to be some either regulatory or societal value changes to push for that.”

The Mountain Lake PBS Forum on microbeads will air and be available on online Friday at 8 p.m.

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