Microplastics found in tap water

21 09 2017

The Guardian, in early September 2017, released a report that microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world. What this means for the seven billion people on earth, no one yet knows. All the experts can agree on is that, given the warning signs being given by life in the oceans, the need to find out is urgent.

Scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analysed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media .[1] Overall, 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres. Bottled water may not provide a microplastic-free alternative to tapwater, as the as it was also found in a few samples of commercial bottled water tested in the United States for Orb.

The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%, with plastic fibres found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York. Lebanon and India had the next highest rates.

Why should you care? Microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses, and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals. If fibers are in your water, experts say they’re surely in your food as well – baby formula, pasta, soups and sauces whether from the kitchen or the grocery. It gets worse. Plastic is all but indestructible, meaning plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade; rather it only breaks down into smaller pieces of itself, even down to particles in nanometer scale. Studies show that particles of that size can migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to the lymph nodes and other bodily organs.

The new analyses indicate the ubiquitous extent of  microplastic contamination in the global environment. Previous work has been largely focused on plastic pollution in the oceans, which suggests people are eating microplastics via contaminated seafood. But the wholesale pollution of the land was hidden. Tap water is gathered from hills, rivers, lakes and wells, sampling the environment as it goes. It turns out that tiny fibres of plastic are everywhere.

Orb Media

“We have enough data from looking at wildlife, and the impacts that it’s having on wildlife, to be concerned,” said Dr Sherri Mason, a microplastic expert at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who supervised the analyses for Orb. “If it’s impacting [wildlife], then how do we think that it’s not going to somehow impact us?”

Plastics often contain a wide range of chemicals to change their properties or color and many are toxic or are hormone disruptors. Plastics can attract other pollutants too, including dioxins, metals and some pesticides. Microplastics have also been shown to attract microbial pathogens. Research on wild animals shows conditions in animal guts are also known to enhance the release of pollutants from plastics. “Further,” as the review puts is, “there is evidence that particles may even cross the gut wall and be translocated to other body tissues, with unknown consequences”. Prof Richard Thompson, at Plymouth University, UK, told Orb: “It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate really quite rapid release.” His research has shown microplastics are found in a third of fish caught in the UK.

This planktonic arrow worm, Sagitta setosa, has eaten a blue plastic fibre about 3mm long. Plankton support the entire marine food chain. Photograph: Richard Kirby/Courtesy of Orb Media

Does any of this affect people? The only land animals in which the consumption of microplastic has been closely studied are two species of earthworm and a nematode.[2]

The scale of global microplastic contamination is only starting to become clear, with studies in Germany finding fibers in all of 24 beer brands tested[3] , as well as in honey and sugar .[4] A study revealed a rain of microplastics falling on Paris from the air, dumping between 3 and 10 tons a year on the city.[5] The same team found microplastics in an apartment and hotel room. “We really think that the lakes [and other water bodies] can be contaminated by cumulative atmospheric inputs,” said Johnny Gasperi, at the University Paris-Est Créteil, who did the Paris studies. “What we observed in Paris tends to demonstrate that a huge amount of fibres are present in atmospheric fallout.”

This research led Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London, to tell a UK parliamentary inquiry in 2016: “If we breathe them in they could potentially deliver chemicals to the lower parts of our lungs and maybe even across into our circulation.” Having seen the Orb data, Kelly told the Guardian that research is urgently needed to determine whether ingesting plastic particles is a health risk.[6]

Another huge unanswered question is how microplastics get into our water and food. A report from the UK’s Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management[7] says the biggest proportion are fibers shed by synthetic textiles and tire dust from roads, with more from the breakdown of waste plastics. It suggests the plastic being dumped on land in Europe alone each year is between four and 23 times the amount dumped into all the world’s oceans.

A lot of the microplastic debris is washed into wastewater treatment plants, where the filtering process does capture many of the plastic fragments. But about half the resulting sludge is ploughed back on to farmland across Europe and the US, according to recent research published in the Journal Environmental Science & Technology[8]. That study estimates that up to 430,000 tons of microplastics could be being added to European fields each year, and 300,000 tons in North America. “It is striking that transfers of microplastics – and the hazardous substances bound to them – from urban wastewater to farmland has not previously been considered by scientists and regulators,” the scientists concluded. “This calls for urgent investigation if we are to safeguard food production,” they say in a related publication.

Plastic fibres may also be flushed into water systems, with a recent study finding that each cycle of a washing machine could release 700,000 fibers into the environment. Tumble dryers are another potential source, with almost 80% of US households having dryers that usually vent to the open air. Rains could also sweep up microplastic pollution, which could explain why the household wells used in Indonesia were found to be contaminated.

A magnified image of clothing microfibres from washing machine effluent. One study found that a fleece jacket can shed as many as 250,000 fibres per wash. Photograph: Courtesy of Rozalia Project

In Beirut, Lebanon, the water supply comes from natural springs but 94% of the samples were contaminated. “This research only scratches the surface, but it seems to be a very itchy one,” said Hussam Hawwa, at the environmental consultancy Difaf,  which collected samples for Orb.

Like so many environmental problems – climate change, pesticides, air pollution – the impacts only become clear years after damage has been done. If we are lucky, the plastic planet we have created will not turn out to be too toxic to life. If not, cleaning it up will be a mighty task. Dealing properly with all waste plastic will be tricky: stopping the unintentional loss of microplastics from clothes and roads even more so.

But above all we need to know if we are all drinking, eating and breathing microplastic every day and what that is doing to us, and we need to know urgently.

[1] https://orbmedia.org/stories/Invisibles_plastics

[2] Carrington, Damian, “We are living on a plastic planet. What does it mean for our health?”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/we-are-living-on-a-plastic-planet-what-does-it-mean-for-our-health

[3] Liebezeit, Gerd; “Synthetic particles as contaminants in German beers”, Journal of Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Vol 31, 2014, Issue 9

[4] Liebezeit, Gerd; “Non-pollen particulates in honey and sugar”, Journal of Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Vol. 30, 2013, Issue 12

[5] Dris, Rachid, et al., “Microplastic contamination in an urban area: case of greater Paris”, Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 2015, https://hal-enpc.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01150549v1

[6] Carrington, Damian, “People may be breathing in microplastics, health expert warns”, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/09/people-may-be-breathing-in-microplastics-health-expert-warns

[7] http://www.ciwem.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Addicted-to-plastic-microplastic-pollution-and-prevention.pdf

[8] Nizzetto, Luca; Futter, Martyn and Langaas, Sindre; “Are agricultural soils dumps for microplastics of urban origin?”; Journal of Envornmental Science & Technology, Sept. 29, 2016, 50 (20), pp 10777-10779

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How to buy a quality sofa – part 4: synthetic fibers

3 10 2012

So from last week’s post, you  know that you want a durable, colorfast fabric that will be lovely to look at and wonderful to live with.  What’s the best choice?  I’m so glad you asked.

You have basically two choices in fibers:  natural (cotton, linen, wool, hemp, silk)  or synthetic (polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc.).  Many fabrics today are made from blends of natural and synthetic fibers – it has been said that most sheet sets sold in the U.S. are cotton/poly blends.

Natural fibres breathe, wicking moisture from the skin, providing even warmth and body temperature;  they are renewable, and decay at end of life.  On the other hand, synthetics do not breathe,  trapping body heat and perspiration; they are based on crude oil, definitely a non-renewable resource and they do not decompose at end of life, but rather remain in our landfills, leaching their toxic monomers into our groundwater.  They are, however, cheap and durable.

I like to think that even without the health issues involved I’d choose to live with natural fibers, since they work so well with humans!  The fibers themselves present no health issues and they’re comfortable.  But they simply don’t last as long as synthetics. But I have begun to see the durability of synthetics as their Dorian Grey aspect, in other words they last so long that they’ve become a huge problem.  By not decomposing, they just break into smaller and smaller particles which leach their toxic monomers into our groundwater.

The impact on health (ours the the planet’s) is an issue that’s often overlooked when discussing the merits of natural vs. synthetic.   And it’s a complex issue, so this week we’ll explore synthetic fibers, and next week we’ll look at natural fibers.

The most popular synthetic fiber in use today is polyester.

At this point, I think it would be good to have a basic primer on polyester production, and I’ve unabashedly lifted a great discussion from Marc Pehkonen and Lori Taylor, writing in their website diaperpin.com:

Basic polymer chemistry isn’t too complicated, but for most people the manufacture of the plastics that surround us is a mystery, which no doubt suits the chemical producers very well. A working knowledge of the principles involved here will make us more informed users.

Polyester is only one compound in a class of petroleum-derived substances known as polymers. Thus, polyester (in common with most polymers) begins its life in our time as crude oil. Crude oil is a cocktail of components that can be separated by industrial distillation. Gasoline is one of these components, and the precursors of polymers such as polyethylene are also present.

Polymers are made by chemically reacting a lot of little molecules together to make one long molecule, like a string of beads. The little molecules are called monomers and the long molecules are called polymers.

Like this:

O + O + O + . . . makes OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Depending on which polymer is required, different monomers are chosen. Ethylene, the monomer for polyethylene, is obtained directly from the distillation of crude oil; other monomers have to be synthesized from more complex petroleum derivatives, and the path to these monomers can be several steps long. The path for polyester, which is made by reacting ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, is shown below. Key properties of the intermediate materials are also shown.

The polymers themselves are theoretically quite unreactive and therefore not particularly harmful, but this is most certainly not true of the monomers. Chemical companies usually make a big deal of how stable and unreactive the polymers are, but that’s not what we should be interested in. We need to ask, what about the monomers? How unreactive are they?

We need to ask these questions because a small proportion of the monomer will never be converted into polymer. It just gets trapped in between the polymer chains, like peas in spaghetti. Over time this unreacted monomer can escape, either by off-gassing into the atmosphere if the initial monomers were volatile, or by dissolving into water if the monomers were soluble. Because these monomers are so toxic, it takes very small quantities to be harmful to humans, so it is important to know about the monomers before you put the polymers next to your skin or in your home. Since your skin is usually moist, any water-borne monomers will find an easy route into your body.

Polyester is the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors. Most are carcinogens; all are poisonous. And even if none of these chemicals remain entrapped in the final polyester structure (which they most likely do), the manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of the chemicals shown in the flowchart above. There is no doubt that the manufacture of polyester is an environmental and public health burden that we would be better off without.

What does all of that mean in terms of our health?  Just by looking at one type of cancer, we can see how our lives are being changed by plastic use:

  • The connection between plastic and breast cancer was first discovered in 1987 at Tufts Medical School in Boston by research scientists Dr. Ana Soto and Dr. Carlos Sonnenschein. In the midst of their experiments on cancer cell growth, endocrine-disrupting chemicals leached from plastic test tubes into the researcher’s laboratory experiment, causing a rampant proliferation of breast cancer cells. Their findings were published in Environmental Health Perspectives (1991)[1].
  • Spanish researchers, Fatima and Nicolas Olea, tested metal food cans that were lined with plastic. The cans were also found to be leaching hormone disrupting chemicals in 50% of the cans tested. The levels of contamination were twenty-seven times more than the amount a Stanford team reported was enough to make breast cancer cells proliferate. Reportedly, 85% of the food cans in the United States are lined with plastic. The Oleas reported their findings in Environmental Health Perspectives (1995).[2]
  • Commentary published in Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2010 suggested that PET might yield endocrine disruptors under conditions of common use and recommended research on this topic. [3]

These studies support claims that plastics are simply not good for us – prior to 1940, breast cancer was relatively rare; today it affects 1 in 11 women.  We’re not saying that plastics alone are responsible for this increase, but to think that they don’t contribute to it is, we think, willful denial.  After all, gravity existed before Newton’s father planted the apple tree and the world was just as round before Columbus was born.

Polyester fabric is soft, smooth, supple – yet still a plastic.  It contributes to our body burden in ways that we are just beginning to understand.  And because polyester is highly flammable, it is often treated with a flame retardant, increasing the toxic load.  So if you think that you’ve lived this long being exposed to these chemicals and haven’t had a problem, remember that the human body can only withstand so much toxic load – and that the endocrine disrupting chemicals which don’t seem to bother you may be affecting generations to come.

And then there is acrylic.  The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide). It is a carcinogen (brain, lung and bowel cancers) and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.  So could the acrylic fibers in our acrylic fabrics be a contributing factor to these results?

Acrylic fibers are just not terrific to live with anyway.  Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly. It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere.(4)

Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.

Just in case you missed the recent report which was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine [5], a Canadian study found that women who work with some common synthetic materials could treble their risk of developing breast cancer after menopause. The data included women working in textile factories which produce acrylic fabrics – those women have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than the normal population, while those working with nylon fibers had double the risk.

What about nylon?  Well, in a nutshell, the production of nylon includes the precursors benzene (a known human carcinogen) and hydrogen cyanide gas (extremely poisonous); the manufacturing process releases VOCs, nitrogen oxides and ammonia.  And finally there is the addition of those organophosphate flame retardants and dyes.

[1] http://www.bu-eh.org/uploads/Main/Soto%20EDs%20as%20Carcinogens.pdf

[2] http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1289/ehp.95103608

[3] Sax, Leonard, “Polyethylene Terephthalate may Yield Endocrine Disruptors”,
Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2010, 118 (4): 445-448

(4) ) http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Acrylic-Plastic.html

(5) Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817 (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract) SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321





Outdoor fabrics

25 03 2012

We love being outdoors. I’ve been told that the most popular outdoor activity in the U.S.A is picnicking.  I would think barbeque must be a close second.  So we love fabrics that we can use outdoors  – you know the ones that resist fading, are stain resistant and can be cleaned with mild soap and water?  They don’t fade or degrade.  Perfect!

Let’s look at America’s most popular outdoor fabric, Sunbrella, which their website claims is recognized as “a fabric with a conscience”, because, as they claim:

  • all Sunbrella fabrics are fully recyclable;
  • they require no dyeing that produces wastewater;
  • and they have received the GREENGUARD and Skin Cancer Foundation certifications.

Before we show why we think these are all claims which exemplify different facets of what Terra Choice calls the “Six Sins of Greenwashing”, let’s first look at the stuff Sunbrella is made of.

Sunbrella is, as their website says, a 100% solution dyed acrylic fabric.   Solution dyeing is simply mixing the dyestuff into the melted polymer.  So unlike dyeing that penetrates a fiber,  this method means that the color is inherent in the fiber, and there is no dye or water waste.  This is a good method of dyeing – but that’s not the issue  – the real issue is what the fabrics are made of.

The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide).   Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly.  It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere – because the burning of acrylic releases fumes of hydrogen cyanide and oxides of nitrogen.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that there is inadequate evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of acrylonitrile, but classified it as a Class 2B carcinogen (possibly carcinogenic).   Acrylonitrile increases cancer in high dose tests in male and female rats and mice. (1)    A recent report which was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine  found that women who work in textile factories which produce acrylic fabrics have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than the normal population.(2)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.

Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. It is considered a group 7 plastic among recycled plastics and is not collected for recycling in most communities. Large pieces can be reformed into other useful objects if they have not suffered too much stress, crazing, or cracking, but this accounts for only a very small portion of the acrylic plastic waste. In a landfill, acrylic plastics, like many other plastics, are not readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.

Now that you know what Sunbrella’s made of, let’s look at their claims:

  • All Sunbrella fabrics are fully recyclable – If you check the website, Sunbrella has a proprietary recycling program, which means they will pick up your old Sunbrella.  Why do they do this?  Because the local municipalities do not accept acrylic fabric nor do most plastic recycling companies.  It’s admirable that Sunbrella has put this program into place, but we don’t really know that they actually re-purpose the old fabric rather than simply cart it to the landfill, do we?
  • Sunbrella fabrics require no dyeing that produces wastewater  – because it’s solution dyed, so therefore this is, well if not exactly a red herring, certainly irrelevant to the fact that the fabric is made from acrylic.
  • Sunbrella fabrics have received the GREENGUARD and Skin Cancer Foundation certifications.
    • Sunbrella fabrics have been certified by GreenGuard Children and Schools because the chemicals used in acrylic production are bound in the polymer – in other words, they do not evaporate. So Sunbrella fabrics do not contribute to poor air quality, (you won’t be breathing them in), but there is no guarantee that you won’t absorb them through your skin. And you would be supporting the production of more acrylic, the production of which is not a pretty thing.
    • With regard to the Skin Cancer Foundation – the certification seems to be based on the fact that Sunbrella fabrics block the sun, which prevents skin cancer, rather than anything inherently beneficial in the fabric itself – because the certification is not valid for any Sunbrella fabric which is sheer or transparent.  So another red herring.

Now that you know what Sunbrella is made of, do you really want convenience at such a great cost?


(1) Hagman, L, “How confident can we be that acrylonitrile is not a human carcinogen?”, Scandanavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, 2001;27(1):1-4 .

[2] Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817 (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract) SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321





Breast cancer and acrylic fibers

16 09 2010

Just in case you missed the recent report which was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine [1], a Canadian study found that women who work with some common synthetic materials could treble their risk of developing breast cancer after menopause.  The data included  women working in textile factories which produce acrylic fabrics   –  those women have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than the normal population, while those working with nylon fibers had double the risk.

I found it interesting that the researchers justified their findings because “synthetic fibers are typically treated with several chemicals, such as flame retardants from the organophosphate family, delustering agents, and dyes, some of which have estrogenic properties and may be carcinogenic.”

These are the same organophosphate flame retardants and dyes that are used across the textile spectrum, and which are found in most textiles that we surround ourselves with each day.

But also let’s look at the fibers themselves.  The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide). It is a carcinogen (brain, lung and bowel cancers) and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.  So could the acrylic fibers in our acrylic fabrics be a contributing factor to these results?

Acrylic fibers are just not terrific to live with anyway.  Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly. It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere.(2)

Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.

What about nylon?  Well, in a nutshell, the production of nylon includes the precursors benzene (a known human carcinogen) and hydrogen cyanide gas (extremely poisonous); the manufacturing process releases VOCs, nitrogen oxides and ammonia.  And finally there is the addition of those organophosphate flame retardants and dyes.

Of course, there are the usual caveats about the study, and those commenting on it said further studies were needed since chance or undetected bias could have played a role in the findings. In addition, according to Reuters, “the scientists said more detailed studies focusing on certain chemicals were now needed to try to establish what role chemical exposure plays in the development of breast cancer.”  So this is yet another area in which more research needs to be done.  No surprise there.

But in the meantime, did you know that many popular fabrics are made of acrylic fibers?   One of the most popular is Sunbrella outdoor fabrics.     Sunbrella fabrics have been certified by GreenGuard Children and Schools because the chemicals used in acrylic production are bound in the polymer – in other words, they do not evaporate.   So Sunbrella fabrics do not contribute to poor air quality, (you won’t be breathing them in), but there is no guarantee that you won’t absorb them through your skin.  And you would be supporting the production of more acrylic, the production of which is not a pretty thing.

And what about backings on fabrics?  Many are made of acrylic.  Turn those fabric samples over and see if there is a plastic film on the back – it’s often made of acrylic.  Upholsterers like fabrics to be backed because it makes the process much easier and stabilizes the fibers.

So I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll avoid those synthetics for now – at least until we know where we stand.


[1] Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817  (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract)  SEE ALSO:  http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

(2)  http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Acrylic-Plastic.html