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Study: 92% of Microplastics in London’s Air Stem Come from Synthetic Textiles

Microfibers from synthetic clothing aren’t just inundating waterways, a new report claims. They’re also infusing the air we breathe.

Indeed, of the microplastics abundant in London’s air, 92 percent are “fibrous microplastics” from abraded plastic textiles such as clothing, upholstery and carpets, according to research published Saturday by King’s College London scientists.

Microplastics, loosely defined as minuscule fragments of plastic, smaller than one-fifth of an inch, can stem from a variety of sources. Mismanaged plastic waste that breaks up into smaller pieces through sediment abrasion, wave action and ultraviolet degradation remains the No. 1 source of marine pollution globally, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Microplastics can also be manufactured to be in that size range, as with microbeads, which are used in certain personal-care products as exfoliants.

But washing synthetic textiles in industrial laundries and households can also create microplastics through the shedding of fibers—as many as 700,000 for per cycle at standard temperatures, according to a 2016 investigation by Plymouth University. Of the materials tested in that study, acrylic was by far the leading offender, generating roughly 730,000 fibers per wash, compared with 137,951 from a polyester-cotton blend and 496,030 from 100 percent polyester.

As part of its research, the team from King’s College London employed a rain gauge with a funneled surface to collect atmospheric deposition—the dust that naturally settles from the environment—in central London during winter 2018. This was filtered and analyzed to draw out and identify the “unique chemical fingerprints” of the particles.

Microplastics, researchers noted, were detected in every sample, and at levels greater than previously reported by studies in Dongguan in China, Paris, and Hamburg in Germany.

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“We found some of the highest reported levels of microplastics in atmospheric dust,” said Stephanie Wright, UKRI Rutherford Fellow in the School of Population Health & Environmental Sciences at King’s College London and lead author of the study. “Fibers were the most abundant for the size range we looked at, mirroring the marine environment.”

Pinpointing the precise origin of the microplastics is next to impossible, she explained, since the tiny fragments, once airborne, can travel as far as 95 kilometers (59 miles) by wind. Local sources have a “greater influence” on deposition in central London, however.

“From where microplastics are emitted and for how long they are airborne remain unknown but are key for understanding long-range transport potential to the wider environment,” Wright said.

An important step in predicting risk, she noted, is to estimate human exposure to airborne microplastics. While the impact of microplastics on humans is still uncertain—it’s appearing in our No. 2, for one—occupational studies indicate that workers exposed to high levels of plastic dust suffer chronic inflammation of the airway at best, interstitial lung disease and tissue scarring at worst.

What’s clearer, however, is that petroleum-based textiles, so abundant in fast fashion, are a significant source. A recent survey by the U.K. charity Hubbub found that more than half of British women aged 16 to 24 buy new clothes every month, yet just 6 percent consider themselves well informed about disposable clothing’s social and environmental impact.