CHICAGO (WLS) -- The I-Team has uncovered hair-like plastics in our water and they are connected to the clothing we wear and wash. Scientists looking into the clothing dilemma are asking, "are we consuming our fleece?"
These tiny plastic particles hidden in our water systems could end up in the food we eat and what we drink. According to researchers, the newly discovered strands are even smaller than tiny beads of plastic in toothpaste and personal products that the I-Team has previously reported.
The tiny microspheres of plastic in toothpaste and facial scrubs are officially banned in the U.S., but the problem of microplastic pollution is far from solved.
The newest plastic threat, according to new and convincing research, is microfibers: miniscule filaments of plastic showing up where they shouldn't; inside fish and seafood, bugs and even some beer and sea salt.
"As plastic gets smaller and smaller it's more likely to get eaten," said Tim Hoellein, Ph.D., microplastic researcher at Loyola University - Chicago.
They are synthetic fibers such as polyester and nylon, popular petroleum-based material for clothing, fuzzy blankets and fleece.
Newer research shows they are shedding off clothing, coming out in the wash and draining into our water system.
Hoellein heads up a team of microplastic researchers at Loyola University.
"When they are in the washing machine they can break off thousands of fibers," he said. "And it is in the liquid... and then that liquid going into the drains.
Keeping Microfibers from Migrating
Microfiber Catching Laundry Ball
Consider what gathers in the lint trap of a clothes dryer. Most washing machines are not equipped to filter out such tiny strands.
Patagonia, the outdoor apparel retailer, commissioned a study that revealed troubling amounts of microfibers coming off polyester fleece in the wash.
A single jacket shed as much as 250,000 microfibers, about the weight of a paperclip. The jacket brand and the type of washing machine also play significant roles.
The company said online, "We're taking it seriously - committing significant resources to learn more about the scope of the problem..."
Patagonia is now working with a trade association and other retailers.
"We need a lot of data still, but we are trying to get that as quickly as possible to understand, um, where each group and initiative can, uh, most effectively address this issue," said Beth Jensen, sustainable business innovation, Outdoor Industry Association.
To date there are no studies showing microfibers cause health problems in humans, but researchers are just starting to gather evidence.
"We want to know what kind of plastic is being consumed, and then what happens once it's inside something alive, inside of its digestive system," Hoellein said.
The I-Team was on location with Loyola's research crew as samples were gathered from the St. Joseph River in Michigan, which empties into Lake Michigan.
"When I first, you know, calculated the number, I kinda just, like, sat there at my computer and I was like, wow, this is-there is so much, so, so much," said Rae McNeish, Ph.D., microplastic researcher at Loyola University - Chicago.
For the current project they're asking about where all that plastic goes. Their work in 2016 revealed significant amounts of microplastics slipping through locally treated wastewater that's returned to area rivers.
"The treatment plants were not designed to treat this particular pollutant; there's no laws about the pollutant, there's no minimum requirements that have to be met," Hoellein said.
Hoellein stressed the wastewater treatment we currently have is still very good.
The I-Team asked the executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago if the filtering will eventually need upgrading.
"So you can treat anything, but there is a cost. There's filters that could filter that out but the expense would be enormous to the public," said David St. Pierre, executive director, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
As for filtering at the drinking water level, the City of Chicago's Department of Water Management told the I-Team its process removes any particles including microfibers down to a very miniscule level.
The city added that it is following the research of microfibers closely.
Water experts also suggested one solution for containing these particles might be a special filter added to washing machines and/or washing bags to contain the fibers.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
LOYOLA UNIVERSITY CHICAGO
Aquatic Ecology Lab, Timothy Hoellein
Interview with Tim Hoellein about water pollutants
An Update on Microfiber Pollution
PLASTIC DEBRIS & FIBERS IN SEAFOOD
Antropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption
OUTDOOR INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION
OIA Priority Issues Brief - Microfibers
GREAT LAKES RESEARCH
"Plastic Debris in 29 Great Lakes Tributaries: Relations to Watershed Attributes and Hydrology null
Are you eating your fleece?
An ABC7 I-Team Investigation