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Scientists on the lookout for microfibers from your fleece jackets in the Great Lakes

A team of scientists from the U.S. and Canada are setting sail on Saturday. They’re heading out on a research trip to sample plastic pollution in all five of the Great Lakes.

It's part of a project called EXXpedition Great Lakes: seven research boats led by female scientists who are studying microplastic pollution. Microplastic pollution is made up of plastic particles that are five millimeters in diameter, or smaller.

Melissa Duhaime is an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan. She's part of the team heading out on Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River.

“This weekend, in particular, we’ll be going out with a group of scientists and citizens and the mission of this project is both to collect plastics that are floating on the surface of the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair, but also to expose the diverse group of people that will be on the boat with us to the issue," she says. She says the crew will include teenage girls from Detroit-area schools.

The trouble with tiny fibers

We’ve heard a lot about microbeads, those tiny plastic pieces that are getting phased out of consumer products like toothpaste and face wash.

But Duhaime says evidence is building that microfibers - plastic fibers that wash out of our clothes and get into rivers and lakes - might be a bigger problem.

“A study that came out of a lab in the UK back in 2009 showed that up to 2,000 fibers are released in a washing machine each time a load of laundry is done," she says.

A recent study commissioned by Patagonia found that number could be even higher, as this Outside Magazine piece details:

The study, performed by graduate students at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that during laundering, a single fleece jacket sheds as many as 250,000 synthetic fibers—significantly more than the 1,900 fibers Browne first recorded. Based on an estimate of consumers across the world laundering 100,000 Patagonia jackets each year, the amount of fibers being released into public waterways is equivalent to the amount of plastic in up to 11,900 grocery bags.

Duhaime says she and other researchers are working to understand what the implications might be of all these tiny fibers getting into the lakes. She says a recent UM study examined the stomach contents of Great Lakes fish.

"Not a single microbead was found in the stomachs, but rather all the plastic we confirmed to be present was in the form of fibers."

“Not a single microbead was found in the stomachs, but rather all the plastic we confirmed to be present was in the form of fibers. And if you start then asking why, we know there are a lot of microbeads in the water, but possibly if they’re being eaten by organisms they’ll simply pass through the intestinal tract and stomach, whereas the fibers might get enmeshed in the tissue and stick around longer and not pass through," she says.

She says so far, no one has found a direct link to human health.

"Even though it’s absolutely been confirmed in several cases now that the seafood, fish and bivalves – mussels – that are sold in markets for human consumption contain plastics," she says. "So we can be pretty sure that humans are eating them. It hasn’t yet been confirmed that that poses a direct health threat to the humans eating them and that’s the link that’s currently missing."

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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